Union Berlin and Freiburg: Bundesliga underdogs battling to make history
The lesser fancied sides have stayed the course in 2022/23 and kept pace with the Bundesliga's leading lights. Union Berlin and Freiburg now face off in a crucial Matchday 32 encounter, both chasing a historic maiden qualification for the UEFA Champions League.
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Our story starts nearly 20 years ago. The 2005/06 season began with Bayern Munich bidding to defend the Bundesliga title, as German football looked ahead with cautious optimism to a FIFA World Cup on home soil the following summer. Freiburg were hoping to pick themselves up after plummeting to the second tier with just three wins the previous season, while a small side in the capital called Union Berlin were preparing for life in the fourth tier of the pyramid.
A generation of progress has seen Union Berlin and Freiburg slowly but surely climb the ranks, returning to the Bundesliga and even reaching Europe in recent seasons. They now go into their Matchday 32 clash level on points and just one behind RB Leipzig in third. If either side can win on Saturday, they will move within sight of securing UEFA Champions League football next season, especially with Leipzig having to visit Munich on Matchday 33.
bundesliga.com checks out how the unfancied sides arrived on the threshold of the European elite...
Watch: Union Berlin's fairy tale rise
Season so far
Union Berlin and Freiburg both began the current campaign brimming with optimism after a fantastic 2021/22 - with the capital side chalking up a best-ever Bundesliga finish of fifth and Freiburg fresh from one of their greatest campaigns that saw them finish sixth.
Both sides rapidly dismantled any suspicions that they had enjoyed freak successes last time around. Four wins in their first five outings saw Freiburg race to the top of the Bundesliga on the first weekend of September. They were promptly knocked off their perch by Union - who beat Leipzig 2-1 and drew 1-1 with Bayern Munich as part of a blistering seven-match unbeaten run to start the season.
Freiburg continued to rack up the points and the two clubs went into their first meeting of the campaign, on Matchday 15, in the top three. Freiburg claimed a thumping 4-1 win to take into the long winter break, with Vincenzo Grifo netting a hat-trick in the game's first 20 minutes. However, a five-match run of wins at the start of 2023 helped keep Union in contention for the top four, while Freiburg followed up their own seven-match unbeaten spell with an incredible 2-1 win at Bayern Munich in the DFB Cup quarter-finals.
After Matchday 31, the two industrious and resilient outfits have shown they pack a pretty similar punch, with hardly anything to separate them on 16 wins, eight draws and 56 points apiece. Union do have a slight advantage when it comes to goal difference, with +12 compared to Freiburg's +8, although they have actually scored two goals fewer.
A win this weekend would lift the capital club to their highest-ever points tally in a Bundesliga season - their Black Forest rivals have already surpassed their club-best total.
Watch: Freiburg stunned Bayern in the DFB Cup
The understated Urs Fischer has epitomised Union Berlin's rise to prominence. With his thick Swiss accent, the 57-year-old doesn't seem a natural fit for the environs of the German capital, yet he has shaped a team capable of doing their talking on the pitch.
Hard-work and unpretentiousness are the be-all and end-all of Fischer's approach. His Union side have run the second-highest distance of all Bundesliga teams this season, rolled their sleeves up defensively - with the fewest goals conceded (32) - and they like to apply pressure from out wide, peppering opposing penalty areas with the second-most crosses from open play.
Just don't mention the Champions League. Fischer has asked journalists to stop quizzing him about his side's prospects of finishing in the top four, in an attempt to take the pressure off his charges.
Christian Streich is similarly keen for Freiburg to retain their underdog status. With a record-breaking 11 years at the helm, there is zero chance of him getting carried away with his club's current lofty position and taking his eye off the little details and huge amount of hard work that have got them to where they are.
Ahead of the Matchday 31 meeting with Leipzig, which Freiburg ended up losing 0-1, he said it was "inexplicable" that his side were ahead of their heavyweight opponents in the table. "We are in a sensational situation," was his cheerful assessment of Freiburg's stellar season.
The two coaches have been asked at times about their comparable successes, with Fischer declaring in December 2021 that "staying authentic" was the key to their longevity in the notoriously fleeting world of football. "I think we're a bit different, though," he observed. "I'm not as quick-witted as Christian, and he's a bit more impulsive on the sidelines."
Taste for Europe
While neither coach or fanbase is going to start demanding Champions League football, it would mark a logical progression - with both sides already thriving on the European stage.
Having experienced a continental group stage for the first time in the UEFA Conference League in 2021/22, Union tried the UEFA Europa League on for size this time around and found the competition to be a superb fit, winning four out of six group stage matches and knocking Dutch giants Ajax out in a memorable play-off round encounter.
In another nod to their curiously similar campaigns, Freiburg kept pace with Union throughout this season's Europa League. In fact, they did slightly better in the group stage, remaining unbeaten to claim top spot, before getting knocked out by Juventus in the last 16 - the same round in which Die Eisernen exited the competition at the hands of Union Saint-Gilloise.
There were no shortage of incredible memories for the fans along the way, from the Freiburg faithful thronging the streets of Turin to thousands of Union supporters celebrating in Amsterdam.
Another parallel between the sides is how much they love to threaten from set pieces. Freiburg have netted a league-high 19 goals from dead balls, followed by Union on 15 goals.
All the hard work their coaches do on the training pitch undoubtedly helps, as does boasting a couple of razor-sharp specialists. Grifo, Freiburg's Italian set-piece maestro, has already notched his highest-ever Bundesliga goal tally (13) and is on course to be the club's top scorer for the third consecutive season.
Watch: All of Grifo's free-kick goals in the Bundesliga
Grifo is also known for his assurance from the penalty spot - as he demonstrated by slotting in two spot-kicks as part of his quick-fire treble when Freiburg beat Union in November.
The Berlin side picked up a set-piece specialist midway through the season. Croatia international Josip Juranovic arrived in the German capital from Celtic in January, and has since sunk two spectacular free-kicks - against Bochum in the Bundesliga and Union SG in the Europa League. He also converted a penalty against Wolfsburg.
The future's bright
Whatever their fortunes in the remainder of the season, the two sets of stirring underdogs will surely strive to keep their feet on the ground. Union Berlin are already taking rightful pride in securing European football for the third successive year, while Freiburg will cherish the prospect of another continental adventure and a fresh chance to mix it with the Bundesliga big boys. As they seek to impose themselves at home and abroad, both clubs are showing that hard work and a clear identity are just as valuable as fame and financial muscle.
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