Union Berlin’s tendency to fluctuate between good and bad returned as they fell 3-1 at Nürnberg on Sunday afternoon. After a promising first half performance, Union descended into the insipid form that marred the start of their season.
It was a frustrating performance for manager Norbert Düwel, who would have hoped last week’s inspirational win over VfL Bochum was a sign that his tactics and philosophy were finally clicking.
Goal hero from the Bochum match, Martin Kobylański, was awarded a starting role ahead of Christopher Quiring, while Toni Leistner returned to the defence at the expense of Björn Kopplin. Bajram Nebihi, surprisingly, was deputised for the injured Sören Brandy.
The team got off to a woeful start. Nürnberg took an early lead in the fourth minute when Christopher Trimmel’s attempted clearance rebounded off Peniel Mlapa and trickled into the net. It was less than ideal, but Union failed to let it affect their game plan and continued to play out from the back and fashion chances from possession on the deck.
Union’s one-touch play was a delight to watch at times, and they were rewarded in the 17th minute when Sebastian Polter turned on the ball from 25 yards out. The Mainz loanee squeezed between challenges from Ondrej Petrak and Jan Polak, burst into the box, and slotted an exquisite finish past Nürnberg keeper Patrick Rakovsky for his eighth goal of the season.
While Union continued to look less than solid in defence, they easily dealt with everything Nürnberg threw at them and fashioned some half-chances along the way. That said, the first period passed without too much action from either side.
The start of the second half, however, started almost identically as the first period.
Slovak playmaker Jakub Sylvestr was presented with a golden chance in the box when Union’s defence allowed a set piece through the gaps, but the effort deflected over the bar.
Nürnberg’s pressure continued, culminating in another free kick after Roberto Puncec tripped Guido Burgstaller on the left edge of the box. From the resulting floated cross, referee Robert Kempter appeared to blow for a foul on Polter, after the forward fell dramatically to the ground clutching his crutch, but in the resulting confusion, Kempter ruled a retake.
The second attempt was a relatively tame shot at goal, but Union’s first-half hero Polter inexplicably stuck out his arm to deflect the ball over the bar. Kempter wasn’t deceived and correctly pointed to the spot. Sylvestr duly converted the penalty past Union keeper Daniel Haas, elevating Nürnberg back in control.
From there, Union appeared to run out of ideas. Düwel attempted to reinvigorate the side with the introductions of new signing Valmir Sulejmani and stalwart Christopher Quiring in the 56th and 68th minutes, respectively, but it had little effect.
Union resorted to predictable long balls, unable to find a way through a resolute Nürnberg midfield. To be fair, the Bavarian club were extremely disciplined and organised, pressing Union effectively and constricting their ability to play football.
The game was calling out for creativity with both Michael Parensen and Damir Kreilach lacking the ingenuity to play a killer ball. Polter’s neck would have been starting to get sore watching ball after ball knocked over his head, but Düwel resisted the urge to introduce playmaker Eroll Zejnullahu into the fray.
Finally, Nürnberg put the game beyond doubt though a counterattack which saw substitute Niklas Stark cross low for Sylvestr, who then bagged his brace with Union’s defence was caught out once again.
Düwel took one last gamble, throwing on Zejnullahu for Polter in the 89th minute, but it was too late. Union’s bright start to 2015 finished as soon as it had begun, and Nürnberg leapfrogged them into seventh place, with ambitions for promotion still alive.
While Düwel remonstrated with referee Kempter at the final whistle, likely about the free-kick retake, he would have been well aware that his side didn’t show enough inventiveness in the second period to win the game or enough composure in defence to secure a draw.
The lack of a creative force in midfield is still a concern for Düwel, and as long as he plays 4-4-2. he will be unable to utilise the talents of Zejnullahu. Union fans are crying out to see more of the local lad, but he’s yet to receive an extended chance in the first team.
It certainly wasn’t the worst performance Union followers have witnessed this season, but it is a downer after the emotional high of victory against Bochum last week, which was carried out as a show of strength for cancer-stricken teammate Benjamin Köhler.
The defeat sees Berlin drop to 11th after 21 rounds in the 2. Bundesliga, with ninth-placed Heidenheim awaiting them at der Alten Försterei next Sunday.
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