It’s the rebels vs the establishment! Upstarts Union Berlin head to 10-in-a-row champions Bayern Munich with only goal difference splitting them in thrilling Bundesliga title race… so can they pull off a Leicester-style miracle?
- Union Berlin head to Bayern Munich in a top-of-the-table Bundesliga contest
- Only goal difference splits the sides with Borussia Dortmund also in the title mix
- Neutrals everywhere will be backing Union to break Bayern’s stranglehold
Union Berlin has always had a rebellious streak. In communist East Germany, they never really stood much chance of success when rivals BFC Dynamo had the backing of the Stasi.
On the crumbling terraces of their Stadion An der Alten Forsterei, dissidents of the regime felt the safety in numbers to shout things they would never dare on the streets.
‘Down with the wall!’ was reputedly such a chant when Union won a free-kick and the opposition set up to defend it. Part of the Berlin frontline during the Cold War was in football stadiums.
Now Union are taking on another form of establishment. Bayern Munich have won Germany’s Bundesliga in each of the past 10 seasons, often in little more than a stupefyingly dull procession.
But not this time. 21 matches into the campaign and remarkably, three teams are locked together on 43 points at the top of the table entering this weekend.
Union Berlin are giving the Bundesliga establishment a serious run for their money this season
It’s been a remarkable season for Union, who also beat Ajax in the Europa League this week
Pictured: How the top of the Bundesliga table looks entering the weekend with the top three tied on 43 points and divided only by goal difference with 13 rounds of the season to play
It comes as no surprise that Bayern are one of the trio. It will raise few eyebrows to see Borussia Dortmund are another. But then there’s Union Berlin – well, they’re not supposed to be there.
This Sunday, upstarts Union make the trip from the capital to the Allianz Arena to take on Bayern in a match that will go a long way to deciding the outcome of the title race.
For the first time in a long while, Bayern look rattled and their rivals are ready to pounce. They have won just two of six league matches since Germany’s top-flight resumed after the World Cup and winter breaks.
Cracks are beginning to show in their usually flawless facade. There has been the row involving Manuel Neuer, who broke his leg skiing after Germany’s World Cup exit and was then enraged by Bayern’s dismissal of goalkeeping coach and close friend Toni Tapalovic.
The club alleged Tapalovic had been leaking information from the coaching staff, something club captain Neuer refuted before further escalating matters by claiming it felt ‘like his heart was being ripped out.’
Bayern’s hierarchy didn’t have a great deal of sympathy and an unpleasant war of words ensued.
Then there’s coach Julian Nagelsmann, who was left raging at referee Tobias Welz after defender Dayot Upamecano was sent off just eight minutes into their 3-2 defeat at Monchengladbach last weekend.
Nagelsmann ranted at Welz for his performance and made a point of going into the referee’s room post-match in full view of journalists.
Things have not been running smoothly for Bayern Munich, who are usually well clear by now
Bayern keeper and captain Manuel Neuer criticised the club’s decision to sack goalkeeper coach and friend Toni Tapalovic (left)
Julian Nagelsmann was livid at referee Tobias Welz as Bayern lost 3-2 at Monchengladbach
Dayot Upamecano was sent off by Welz just eight minutes into Bayern’s loss last weekend
He apologised on Twitter afterwards, saying: ‘Emotions are part of sport. And given the red card, I had to vent after the game.
‘However, I have to apologise for the choice of words to the team around Tobias Welz. Unfortunately I went too far there.’
Every Bayern coach is constantly under pressure but if Nagelsmann thought the Champions League win over Paris Saint-Germain had eased tensions, he was mistaken.
The reigning champions have won just 12 of their 21 league games so far, their lowest at this point since 2010-11, when Jurgen Klopp’s Dortmund won the title and Bayern finished third.
So the opportunity is very much there for someone else to capitalise and break Bayern’s long run of championships.
When Union topped the Bundesliga in the opening weeks of the season – the first time they’d led a top division since 1970 in the DDR-Oberliga – everyone assumed they’d quickly tumble down again.
Union Berlin’s fans have become slowly more accustomed to this season’s nosebleed territory
German football’s rebel club are living the dream right now as they push at the top of the table
But even though coach Urs Fischer kept insisting the team’s No 1 objective was to avoid relegation, they kept proving incredibly difficult to beat.
With only one of their players heading to Qatar for the World Cup, they remained relatively fresh compared to their rivals and duly won five consecutive league games after the restart.
Indeed, it was viewed as a major let-down when they dropped two points in a goalless draw at home to struggling Schalke last weekend.
But Thursday night’s brilliant 3-1 win over Ajax to set up a Europa League last-16 date with Belgians Union Saint-Gilloise merely continued the fairytale nature of their campaign.
For the record, they’re also still in the German Cup, travelling to Eintracht Frankfurt in the quarter-finals in April.
If Leicester City taught us anything in 2016, it’s that miracles can happen in football and the whispers are growing louder.
Leicester famously won the Premier League title in 2015-16 at odds of some 5000-1
Dortmund cannot be counted out of the Bundesliga title race as they take on Bayern and Union
Union have remarkable powers of recovery, rescuing 12 points from losing positions this season – more than any other team in Europe’s top five leagues.
Their game plan is based on rock solid defensive foundations and their 24 goals conceded in the league so far is second only to the 21 let in by Bayern.
If they can add to Bayern’s problems and emerge from Sunday’s game with a point or a win, it will only add to the suspicion they aren’t going to fall away during the run-in.
Dortmund, who travel to Hoffenheim on Saturday afternoon, are also well-placed to pounce on any Bayern slip-ups.
They have won all six games since the winter break, closing what was a nine-point gap. Julian Brandt has been in sparkling form, involved in five goals in those half-dozen games, while Karim Adeyemi has netted in his last four.
Unfortunately, the striker has suffered a hamstring injury and will be sidelined for a while.
For a change, the Bundesliga looks set to deliver an engrossing and unpredictable title race. While quite a few in Germany just want someone else other than Bayern to win it, you suspect rebel club Union would be the true people’s champions.
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