This should have been the day in which Freiburg made all their dreams come true. Sat in fourth place in the Bundesliga, with rivals RB Leipzig having come off a dreadful week of domestic defeat and European disappointment, they were set – with the sun out and their still-spanking-new Europa-Park Stadion full to its near-35,000 capacity, they were ready to celebrate. “It was actually arranged perfectly by the football gods,” wrote Florian Schmieder of Badische Zeitung.
Enter Union Berlin, a club who inspire feelings of great affection off the pitch but on it are brutally realistic. Not that there is anything wrong with that, of course. Urs Fischer has done an incredible job with Union, making them unquestionably the capital’s best team on a relative shoestring. Yet stories of football romance are meant to be beautiful chaos and in a sporting sense, Union thrive on order. As a club, they are the dream of many neutrals. As a team, they are the stuff of many opponents’ worst nightmares.
They were certainly Freiburg’s on Saturday afternoon. The carnival all but turned into a wake as Union were ruthlessly efficient. They had relatively little of the ball but powered by a sensational first-half display from Sheraldo Becker, they couldn’t be stopped. Becker’s teasing cross was thighed on to a post by Maxi Eggestein for Grischa Prömel to tap in the first. An even better delivery from the same player was emphatically headed in by Christopher Trimmel for number two and Becker himself pounced on a Nico Schlotterbeck misjudgment to go solo and smash in from an angle, giving Union a 3-0 half-time lead. They sat in defended in an exemplary fashion and trimmed Freiburg apart on the counter almost at will.
Christian Streich’s side had their hard luck story, with a potential equaliser by Lucas Höler at 1-0 ruled out on review for a handball, which looked borderline at most. Streich being Streich, he didn’t attempt to hide behind the VAR consternation despite acknowledging that it made him perplexed (“maybe I’m visually impaired but taking away that goal is madness”), following on from his touchline anger at the time. “We defended badly as a group,” he admitted, “and it’s not acceptable at this level.”
Almost inevitably Leipzig took advantage, working off their Europa League frustrations with an ultimately emphatic 4-0 win over Augsburg to leapfrog back into fourth place. The sense now is that Freiburg’s chance has gone. On the final day they would have to win at Leverkusen – though Die Werkself’s own sealing of third place and a Champions League return with an exciting 4-2 win at Hoffenheim might raise hopes of some pre-holiday relaxing – while Leipzig lost at Arminia Bielefeld.
After a weekend in which the Bundesliga was full of the unexpected, maybe we shouldn’t rule it out. Saturday did also see Köln supporters on the pitch in their thousands after their last home game of the campaign to celebrate their team’s season, despite a deflating loss at home to Wolfsburg. “I don’t feel like celebrating today,” said their coach Steffen Baumgart, “but when I look at the table you can see me grinning inside.” The day began with the outside chance of a Champions League place themselves in front of a sold-out Rhein-Energie Stadion. It ended with at least a Europa Conference League spot assured and the locals were grateful for it.
That, in time, should be where Freiburg heads are at. Their fans received them warmly at full-time despite the disappointment. It has been a magnificent campaign of way-above-par standard, in a new stadium with a big future to be written – and maybe more so on Saturday week, when they face Leipzig in the DfB Pokal final. This was a major setback, but the season is far from over.
Perhaps there was recognition of Union’s achievement too. This made sure they will be playing European football again next season, probably a tier up from this term in the Europa Conference League, and definitely in – irony of ironies – Olympiastadion again. That they did it after losing the iconic Max Kruse in January makes it even more of a coup. This was a typical example of the sort of discipline and structure that has made them so respected.
Streich will continue to be respected, and loved, too, no matter how this season finishes. Freiburg were close to making the near-impossible happen and even if the stumble hurts, many will be grateful to this team simply for making us dream. Few would begrudge him some silverware to go with the storylines that his team have thrilled us with.
Union’s neighbours Hertha could have made themselves safe by beating Mainz in front of a busy Olympiastadion. Instead, Stefan Bell’s late header left them hanging on the result of Stuttgart’s match at Bayern Munich to see if they still had the possibility of falling into the relegation playoff spot or not. Felix Magath had already had his say about Bayern’s preceding trip to Ibiza, as discussed last week (“As a professional, which I consider myself to be,” he said after the Mainz game, “I’m preparing for the worst-case scenario”) and his concerns were at least partly realised. The Portuguese teenager Tiago Tomás scored a brilliant opener and despite Bayern coming back to lead, Sasa Kalajdžić’s header earned Pellegrino Materazzo’s team a point. It all means that if Stuttgart were to beat Köln on Saturday and Hertha lost at Borussia Dortmund, it would be the Berliners in the playoff spot, given their far worse goal difference. Stuttgart’s point and comparative goal difference also means Arminia Bielefeld are almost certainly relegated after Friday late loss at Bochum.
Bayern received and celebrated the Bundesliga title at the end of a strange afternoon, in which they looked all at sea at the back as Niklas Süle sat on the bench for the first hour (“many coaches wouldn’t give him a minute,” retorted Julian Nagelsmann with reference to Süle’s imminent departure) and Kingsley Coman was sent off in the last minute of stoppage time for whacking Konstantinos Mavropanos.
It is likely that either Stuttgart or Hertha will face Hamburg, surging at the Bundesliga 2 season’s end, in what would be a titanic playoff. It won’t be Schalke, though, who sealed a return to the top flight at the first attempt with a thrilling comeback from two down to beat HSV’s city rivals St Pauli. Powered by second-tier cheat code Simon Terrode, who scored twice to take his tally to 29 for the season, Die Königsblauen’s emotional celebration on the pitch with fans at full-time underlined exactly how much pressure they had been under to fulfil the brief.
Dortmund, then, have the Revierderby to look forward to again in 2022-23, and they can’t wait for next season to start, despite clinching second in a scratchy 3-1 win at Greuther Fürth. All the talk projected ahead, with incoming sporting director Sebastian Kehl’s pre-match statement that he was “assuming” Marco Rose would still be head coach next season understandably jumped on (Kehl later played this down), while this week should see the departure of Erling Haaland and Salzburg’s Karim Adeyemi confirmed as his replacement.