Union Berlin have defied all expectations once again by qualifying for European competition at the end of their second ever Bundesliga campaign. But how did they do it?
bundesliga.com looks back on another ground-breaking campaign for the colourful club from the capital.
“That it ended like this is a script for Hollywood,” said Union boss Urs Fischer after his team yet again upset the odds to beat RB Leipzig 2-1 on the final day of the 2020/21 campaign. The last-gasp success secured a seventh-placed finish for the home side as well as entry to the new UEFA Europa Conference League next season.
It marks the latest in a long list of eye-catching feats accomplished under Fischer. The 2019/20 season had been impressive enough, after all, as Union backed up a dramatic promotion play-off win over VfB Stuttgart in May 2019 with a comfortable 11th-placed finish.
Watch: Kruse: "It's huge for the club!"
Repeating the trick from that maiden top-flight experience, however, seemed like a tall order for a side whose budget was dwarfed by many other clubs in the division. Union had lost key players in the summer transfer window too, with agile Polish goalkeeper Rafal Gikiewicz leaving for Augsburg and 12-goal striker Sebastian Andersson moving to Cologne.
Rugged centre-back Neven Subotic had also departed, but another veteran arrived late in pre-season in what looked an intriguing signing. Former Germany attacker Max Kruse, then 32, joined after spending a year with Fenerbahce in Turkey.
“It was a gut feeling,” he told the Berliner Kurier when explaining his decision to play at the Stadion an der Alten Försterei. “I remembered the electric atmosphere here that you can feel even on TV, and of course Berlin’s a good place to live.”
Over 4,000 supporters - some of whom gave blood in a fundraising drive and helped rebuild the stadium in harder times - were allowed into Union’s east Berlin home. Their side got off to a false start, however, suffering a 3-1 loss against Augsburg.
With Union 1-0 down late on at Gladbach on Matchday 2, the fans might have been fearing a long season. Step forward Nico Schlotterbeck - who had replaced his older brother Keven on loan - whose towering header got Union on the board with a point.
They picked up three more in the following match, with Kruse heading in the opener on his first start during a 4-0 thumping of Mainz. Christopher Trimmel got two assists, and defender Marvin Friedrich’s goal signalled that Union would once again be one of the most dangerous sides from set pieces.
Kruse had announced on his arrival that he wanted to remind people in Germany about what he could do. He certainly did that in Union’s next three matches, registering three goals and four assists in victories over Hoffenheim (3-1), Arminia Bielefeld (5-0) and Cologne (2-1).
He added another two goals in the 3-3 draw against Eintracht Frankfurt, his second a thunderous goal-of-the-season contender with eight minutes left that salvaged a point in a spectacular game.
By that stage Kruse had six goals and five assists for the season, and a club nicknamed “Iron Union” had gone a record eight Bundesliga games without defeat after Matchday 9. It was their attack that was impressing as much as their defence, however, and their total of 21 goals was more than they had managed in the first half of 2019/20.
Former Hertha Berlin player Andrich had three goals to his name by then, but his early red card in the derby cost his team in a 3-1 loss on Matchday 10. Union bounced back by drawing with champions Bayern Munich, however, and rounded out the year by beating Borussia Dortmund at home for the second season in succession.
Watch: Youssoufa Moukoko made history but Union got the better of Dortmund
Friedrich - a regular alongside summer arrival Robin Knoche in a disciplined three or four-man backline - got the deciding goal in that 2-1 success. However, he was keen to play down talk that his side could target a top-six finish.
“Our goal for the season remains avoiding relegation,” he told kicker.
“We know we have to reach our absolute limit in every Bundesliga game. Otherwise it will be difficult.”
Even though they had lost Kruse to injury in December, Fischer was more bullish about his team’s ability to maintain their momentum - and even improve. Union started 2021 with a 2-0 victory at Bremen, with Nigerian striker Taiwo Awoniyi - one of several unheralded summer signings enjoying the limelight - on the scoresheet to make it in five goals in seven matches.
“For me it’s always about the team,” he told bundesliga.com when discussing how Union was “all about family”. “Always fighting, working, doing everything for the team.”
Union took out another big name on Matchday 16 - Cedric Teuchert breaking the deadlock at the death against Bayer Leverkusen - to sit one point off third place in fifth.
Watch: Union snatched three points at the death against Leverkusen
That was when they hit their first major rough patch of the season, losing three of their next four matches and claiming just seven points from a possible 24 in their next eight games.
The return of Kruse - following a 12-game absence - coincided with an upswing in form, although his two goals were of little consolation when Union suffered a 5-2 beating - their heaviest of the season - at Frankfurt on Matchday 26.
Fischer’s team were still seventh at that point, but four clubs were within striking distance below them. With a tough fixture list to come, many might have assumed they would fade away.
Instead, though, Union did what they do best: stuck together and punched above their weight. Andrich’s fifth and final goal of the campaign got them a derby point against Hertha, then a late Marcus Ingvartsen strike got them another precious 1-1 draw at Bayern.
Two wins in three followed, with the third game in that run featuring a morale-boosting hat-trick from Finnish forward Joel Pohjanpalo against Bremen.
“I don’t want to talk about it now - don’t want to jinx it!” Pohjanpalo, another of the capital club’s shrewd summer recruits, told bundesliga.com when discussing his side’s European chances after that Matchday 30 success.
“Let’s go game by game, but of course we all obviously are dreaming about it.”
Pohjanpalo stressed that there was no pressure on Union given that they had played an “insane” season until then, but a 3-0 loss at Wolfsburg dealt a blow and left them eighth with two games to go.
Pohjanpalo came off the bench to rescue a point against his parent club in Leverkusen on the penultimate weekend, however, with Gladbach’s loss at Stuttgart putting European qualification back in Union’s hands.
Watch: Pohjanpalo’s hat-trick got Union to the verge of Europe
The not-so-simple equation? Beat league and DFB Cup runners-up Leipzig in Julian Nagelsmann’s final game in charge. When Die Roten Bullen went in front through Justin Kluivert on 55 minutes, it looked like Union were heading for a fourth defeat from four top-flight matches against the visitors.
With 2,000 fans allowed back into the ground for the final day, however, Union found the strength to fight back. Club captain Trimmel - fresh from signing a new contract - swung over a corner that was powered home by Friedrich. It was a ninth assist of the season for the 34-year-old wing back, and a fifth goal of the season for the ex-Augsburg central defender.
While the home side pushed desperately for a winner, goalkeeper Andreas Luthe - who has staved off competition from Liverpool loanee Loris Karius - instead had to make a string of heroic saves to deny Leipzig. And there was to be one last twist in the second minute of injury-time.
That was when maverick marksman Kruse squeezed a header into the corner from Sheraldo Becker’s cross to give underdogs Union another famous win.
The 2020/21 season, then, finished much like it had started. Kruse - having netted 11 goals and got five assists - was once again the talk of the town that hadn’t seen its team lose at the Försterei since the opening weekend.
“You can’t make history in a better way,” he told Sky afterwards. “It was a sensational finish to a sensational season.”
Union, though, are making a habit of this kind of thing.