I've taken a look back and reviewed Union Berlin's campaign so far for Bundesliga Football. On a personal note, I've learnt a significant amount this year. Glühwein is deceptively strong, German is a tremendous language to learn when you put the hours in and there is more to life than purely football at Union - much more. You can scoff at that last notion and are perhaps thinking, 'of course there is'. Let me explain. When I first went to Union in 2010 I encountered a passionate fan base and a cracking 'local side'. As I have slowly learnt more about 'Eisern' I've discovered theatre productions, carol singing and some of the friendliest people I've had the privilege to meet in Berlin. They speak German to me as well. 1.FC Union Berlin are an association in the true sense of the word. A genuine community club but equally, people such as me, are accepted. I can assure you that does not happen everywhere in Berlin.
However, lets move on. I want to have a look forward now. It's New Years Day after all! What does the future, or the next 5 months, hold for Union?
Before considering matters on the pitch, it is only right to applaud the Berliners for a magnificent job in building the new stand. Boasting over 3,600 seats, the grandstand, weather permitting, will be open for the first home game after the winter break. It will be 'Friday Night Lights' at 6pm against SV Sandhausen. The special heated seats may not be installed by then but the majority of the standard seats will hopefully be ready for this fixture. Perhaps Union should have been awarded the contract to build the new airport?! (so far over a year behind schedule).
On The Pitch
There are 15 games remaining. 7 of these are at home and 8 away.
The majority of the away games are against sides in the top half. 2 of the 8 matches are against sides in the bottom half, although that includes Köln, in 10th place, who sit a mere point behind the Berliners. Union have only won twice in the league on the road so far this season and although they have managed to score 3 goals on three occasions it is worth pointing out that these games earned the Berliners a measly 2 points. Strangely the influential Torsten Mattuschka has only featured in one of these three games. Union do not travel particularly well.
In light of the above and if football were played on paper, the 7 home games, will be crucial in deciding Union's fate this year. Will they be battling for third, or set for another very respectable, mid-table finish. Union are a small club, run on a small budget and aiming to establish themselves as a solid Bundesliga 2. side. Arguably they pretty much achieved this status. However, if you are not moving forward you're probably going backwards as it's pretty difficult to stand still in football.
As Union found out in August and September, momentum is key. Therefore, I'd argue the home games against Sandhausen (2nd bottom), Ingolstadt (9th) and Erzebirge (11th) will decide Union's final position in the table come May 2013. If they are to contend 3rd place, whilst a pipe dream for most it is certainly not an unrealistic ambition, they'll require maximum points. Anything less than 7 points from these games will mean Union must significantly improve their away form - in particular their defending away from the Stadion An der Alten Försterei.
The stand out fixture after the 'winterpause' is clearly the Berlin derby - the stadtmeisterschaft. Can Union avenge the 2-1 reverse they suffered in September? Hertha are clear favourites. They are at home and riding high in 2nd place in the Bundesliga 2. Union have previous though. One down at half-time they fought back and claimed a famous victory in 2011. After having watched Hertha labour for 85 minutes against St.Pauli at the Olympiastadion, I certainly won't be heading to the Berlin derby with any fear and nor I'd guess are Neuhaus and his men. The team who win this fixture will have those key ingredients that make football so difficult to predict - momentum and players with confidence. See the league leaders Braunschweig for evidence. They got off to a cracking start and have not looked back. That dodgy penalty at Union served them well!
Can Union gain promotion? Well, they are currently looking to strengthen the squad with another attack-minded player. Creativity has been a struggle at home for Union. Many teams come to sit back and hit Union on the break. This is arguably when the Berliners struggle most. Some additional creativity may be just what they need as well as an increase in 'defending from the front' when away from home. I think Union will do well to finish 7th again. They have a good team spirit, fanatical home support and a stadium that hits a superb balance, in terms of being modern, whilst also accommodating the masses who prefer to stand.
I'll predict a 6th place finish because I'm a born optimist. Whatever the outcome, it will be an exciting year as an Unioner. Hopefully the Försterei will be become even more intimidating for the opposition and we'll roar Union on to a play-off spot. We can but dream, for what is life without dreams?
Enjoy 2013 and feel free to make your prediction of where Union Berlin will finish in the league by using the comments section below.
Happy New Year / Guten Rutsch to you all!
For information on the 'Union in Englisch' fan club please take a look at this blog post. Stickers are now on sale!