It was going to take something to be heard through the cacophony, to guide the way through the fog that sporadically impaired vision of proceedings, and to cut a tension that was quite unusual in the context of Berlin’s football. In a global city where football doesn’t often take centre stage, it needed something or someone to seize the moment. Sebastian Polter was ready.
In this first top-flight meeting between Berlin’s two most prominent clubs, Union and Hertha, where nerves crackled and fireworks fizzed, the football had been fractious in the Bundesliga new boys’ atmospheric, old-school home, rebuilt by the club’s supporters and still harbouring a manual scoreboard in the corner. From the moment the 28-year-old Polter came on to replace Sebastian Andersson for the last 15 minutes, leaning into the field in anticipation as he waited for his chance, he was determined to make this his moment.
“He’s not afraid of anything,” Union’s chief spokesman, Christian Arbeit, told the Guardian after the game, smiling. “He’s the type of guy that wants to carry the world on his shoulders.”
It must have felt like he was doing just that after the referee Denis Aytekin awarded Union an 87th-minute penalty for Dedryck Boyata’s challenge on Christian Gentner. Aytekin went over to the pitch to check the video monitor, and all through the delay Polter remained on the spot, cradling the ball, alone with his thoughts. When Aytekin did give the go-ahead, he put the ball down and nervelessly smashed the winner into the top corner.
It is the current apex of a nascent season which has astonished at every turn. Even if Union’s plans continue to be undeniably ambitious, with developing their facilities and their academy in the works, dreaming of these moments and living them are two different states entirely. Their first season in the elite has been a long string of pinch-yourself pinnacles, one after the other – the overwhelming emotion of the opening-day meeting with Leipzig, with fans bringing and brandishing images of late relatives who supported the club, the improbable first win against Dortmund, and making life tough for Bayern in Munich last week. And now this.
Arbeit had talked in the days before the game about his pride in the derby being chosen as the weekend’s Top-Spiel, occupying the 6.30pm local time slot. It was always for the occasion, not the craft of the football, and what unfolded conformed exactly to type. Union hit the goal frame in the first three minutes, when Christopher Lenz headed Andersson’s right-wing cross against the post, but it was the exception rather that the rule, and it was the best chance for either side before Polter got his opportunity late on. That he did, and took it, was Union’s reward for showing the desire to chase the win, rather than just observe the occasion. Hertha, their legs heavy from 120 minutes of Pokal football in front of a full house against Dynamo Dresden in the week, seemed to have little left to give, despite their superior pedigree, though Boyata insisted afterwards that it was “no excuse” for the performance. “We just didn’t play well,” the defender admitted.
Getting off the tram at Alten Försterei and turning the corner to the stadium’s front, hours before kick-off, it was tempting to wonder how Union would deal with the occasion of a top-level, equal-status meeting with a club that, until reunification in 1990, had played in a different national league to them. The opening day had been hard to handle. “I guess that for the players on the pitch, it was all too much,” Arbeit said of their 4-0 defeat by an admittedly excellent Leipzig.
This time, they were ready, despite the frequency of the flares and rockets, despite the two stoppages at the beginning of the second half, delaying the game by six minutes, as the pyro escalated and the smoke snaked out over the pitch, obscuring the players in a wispy fog.
At the end, some fans in the away section fired lit rockets at Union’s celebrating players, and into home sections of the stadium. Polter later discovered that his watching girlfriend and two children, sat in the main stand, were narrowly missed by one of those rockets. “I think pyro is has its place in a city derby,” he told the media afterwards, “but it has to be ensured that nobody is injured.”
Anger rose and a handful of masked, black-clad ultras scaled the home fences and on to the pitch, to be turned back by their own players, led by their firm-minded goalkeeper Rafal Gikiewicz. Nothing was going to spoil this historic day for Union, but they aren’t just in the Bundesliga to enjoy the scenery.
• A very bad Saturday for Bayern had, by Sunday evening, turned into a new start. At 5.21pm on the Saturday the final whistle blew at Eintracht Frankfurt, with the champions on the wrong end of an unprecedented 5-1 hammering, and at 8.56pm the following evening the club officially confirmed the departure of coach Niko Kovac.
It could be argued that the referee Marcus Schmidt had got the ball rolling at 3.39pm in Frankfurt, correctly commuting his decision to award a penalty to Eintracht and to book Jérôme Boateng to a free-kick and a red card for the defender for his foul on Gonçalo Paciência after reviewing and discovering the foul was outside the box – further exposing Bayern’s already decimated defence. The feeling on Sunday morning had been that the powers that be would accord Kovac a temporary reprieve until the international break, with disruption not ideal before the visits of Olympiacos and then Dortmund to the Allianz Arena this week. It seems, though, that Kovac had also decided enough was enough, in an environment where any authority with which he began had long been chipped away. By the end in Frankfurt – where Kovac’s style had suited so much better in his spell there – it was Manuel Neuer speaking as the leader. “It was not a huge surprise for me,” he said of the defeat. “It’s not working.. Things definitely have to change.” And they have.
• Profiting in the short-term are Borussia Mönchengladbach, extending their lead at the summit to three points after a satisfying– and slightly easier than it looked – 2-1 win at a disjointed Bayer Leverkusen. Marcus Thuram was again outstanding, creating Oscar Wendt’s opener and walking in the winner in the absences of Alessane Pléa and Breel Embolo.
• Leipzig made it 14 goals in four days – having trounced Wolfsburg in the DfB Pokal in the week they hammered Mainz 8-0. Timo Werner scored a hat-trick and registered a hat-trick of assists. The last player to manage that was Claudio Pizarro, for Bayern in their 9-2 hammering of Hamburg in March 2013. Werner’s personal haul over the week’s two games is five goals and five assists, with Julian Nagelsmann and company getting the monkey of their samey home form off their back in fine style.
• Oliver Glasner’s Wolfsburg, meanwhile, finished off their rotten week by losing their unbeaten Bundesliga record – the only remaining one – at Dortmund. Die Wölfe were in it in the first half but comprehensively outplayed and downed by three unanswered BVB goals after the break, despite the hosts losing Marco Reus to injury in the first half and resting Jadon Sancho. After their Pokal victory against Gladbach it’s been a good few days for Dortmund, with Lucien Favre’s position strengthened by his players’ second-half efforts in both games.