Union Berlin finding own Bundesliga success hard to believe

BERLIN (AP) — Even the players are having a hard time believing Union Berlin’s remarkable run this season.

“It’s a bit surreal,” Union midfielder Rani Khedira said after Saturday’s 2-1 win over Leipzig in the Bundesliga.

Promoted for the first time in 2019, Union has already reached — and surpassed — its season target of 40 points to ensure survival and its place in the league for a fifth season. There are still 14 games to go.

“No one had imagined this development,” Khedira said. “We sat down before the season, and it quickly became apparent to everyone that we wanted to reach 40 points again as quickly as possible because we know how difficult the Bundesliga is.”

Despite modest resources, Union is only a point behind 10-time defending champion Bayern Munich in second place after winning every game since the turn of the year.

“The madness continues,” Union coach Urs Fischer said after the win in Leipzig.

It was the club’s fifth consecutive 2-1 league victory over Leipzig and it ended the home team’s 18-game unbeaten run in all competitions.

Fischer echoed Khedira, who was captain in place of the rested Christopher Trimmel, when he referred to the team’s point total.

“It’s even more surreal than it was before the game,” the Swiss coach said. “Forty-two points in the 20th round, what should I say?”

Leipzig, backed and controlled by energy drink giant Red Bull, was seen as a genuine title contender after winning the German Cup last year. But the loss to Union, a club owned by its 49,000 members, left Leipzig seven points behind Bayern.

It was the fourth game from the six this year that Union turned around to win after falling a goal behind.

“We don’t know exactly how we turn games like this around. I think it’s simply an unbelievable morale,” said Khedira, the younger brother of former Germany midfielder Sami Khedira. “It wasn’t a deserved win, it wasn’t a nice win, but a win for morale. And I think that’s what makes this team.”

Union also came from behind to reach the German Cup quarterfinals with a 2-1 win over Wolfsburg on Feb. 1.

Union made good use of the Bundesliga’s extended winter break. The team’s punishing schedule took its toll in November as it conceded 11 goals in three games without a win. Union previously had the league’s best defense with only nine goals conceded in 12 games.

While the players recovered, Union general manager Oliver Ruhnert worked on reinforcements, bringing in Croatia fullback Josip Juranović from Celtic, Tunisia midfielder Aïssa Laïdouni from Ferencvaros and French defender Jerome Roussillon from Wolfsburg to compensate for the departures of Julian Ryerson and Genki Haraguchi.

All three new arrivals have featured prominently in the team’s winning start to the year.

Five straight victories in the Bundesliga is a record for Union, the only team in the league to have played in the DDR-Oberliga, East Germany’s Bundesliga equivalent.

The team next visits Dutch club Ajax in Europa League playoffs on Thursday. It’s the first time Union has been in the knockout stages of the competition.

Former West Germany captain Lothar Matthäus, commentating on TV, was effusive with his praise after Saturday’s victory.

“We don’t want to just talk about the championship, but Union’s performances over the last years. Union is still competing in three competitions this season. For a club like Union, which was promoted four years ago, it’s everything, it’s enormous, it deserves the highest recognition from every soccer fan, whether a Union fan or not,” Matthäus said.

“In such games, with such fans, with this mentality, how they play games. They don’t just play soccer, they work soccer, and that’s Union’s strength. That’s why they’re so successful, because they work for one another.”


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