The Bundesliga leaders Bayern Munich and the Iron Ones are tied on 43 points each in the league.
Union Berlin could only manage a draw against Schalke. Was it because of fatigue after the Ajax game?
“Yes, it’s been with us all season that we just have an enormous number of ‘English weeks’, so it is sometimes difficult to bring everything on the pitch. Nevertheless, I think one has to say that Schalke is in good form despite being bottom of the table. In the last weeks some opponents have had a hard time against them. It was the same with us. They are brutally compact defensively and play one-vs.-one over the whole pitch. Then it is
sometimes difficult. Nevertheless, one has to say that the one point isn’t bad for us.”
Except for 2 matchdays, Union Berlin has always been in the top four this season. Is that a habit with the team by now?
“Yes, it definitely feels really good week by week. Of course, it is our aspiration to continue to compete in the upper half of the table. Some probably suspected that we would break in a little earlier and fall back into the midfield. That didn’t happen. I think that also after the winter break, we came out very good and collected many points. Hence, it would be really nice if we can stay in the upper group of the table as long as possible, but we know that the games are really difficult. There may be some defeats, maybe even multiple who knows? Of course, we hope this won’t be the case and naturally we want to collect as many points as possible. Who knows, maybe in the end we will also compete in the upper
group of the table.”
The top of the table is looking tight. Do you think you have what it takes to become champions of Germany?
“Of course, that is everyone’s dream, to be German champions. However, I don’t believe that this is the reality. It is just enormously difficult to slide in up there because Bayern has been so constant over the last years and always sovereignly became champions. This year it is a bit tighter, several teams are competing up there. Dortmund has had a fantastic season so far, we are collecting points, Freiburg is collecting points, so there is a large pool that knocks on the door up there. However, there are still several games and so much can happen, but of course, we want to keep collecting points.”
What is the club’s goal this season?
“I think the coach told the public some days ago. We want to play internationally. That is going to be our target. We will see what happens in the end. There are three competitions. The Conference League, the Europa League, and the Champions League. If we could qualify for one of these competitions, then I think we reached our goal of the season and that has to be the aspiration now.”
What would you prefer, Champions League or a cup?
“I have never played in the Champions League. Hence, it would be a dream of mine.”
You already have 5 goals this season, your best season yet so far. Why do you think your form is so good?
“In the previous years I played a bit more defensively. In Freiburg we played 4-4-2 with two clear number sixes. Here we are playing with two number eights and one number six. That means that I can play a bit more offensively, I can go along a bit more into the box, I just have more situations around the box. I had the possibility to score goals in the previous years as well, just not as many. This year also comes with a bit of luck. The balls just fall down exactly in front of my feet, I hit them well and that is how I scored the goals in the last games.”
Have you set yourself a goalscoring target for this season?
“However it comes. Of course, if one has scored already some goals he becomes hungry and wants to score more. That is also the case for me. Hence, I continue on my path and naturally hope to get some more chances this season and convert them into goals.”
In the past, you already scored 2 goals against Bayern. Time for a third?
“Yes. It would be really nice. I scored in Munich last year. It will be a brutally difficult game. We know that several things must go well on that day, maybe not so many for Bayern. Then you maybe have the possibility to get something out of Munich. However, if things go quite normally then it is brutally difficult and normally there is nothing to get out of Munich.”
Union Berlin travels on Sunday for the top duel against Bayern. What can we expect from Union?
“I think one could see, also after the winter break, that some teams got some points in Munich. Of course, one has to be brutally compact defensively, to not allow many one v one situations, because they have good qualities in that aspect. Furthermore, you have to hope that you can solve one or two counterattacks. It shouldn’t become a ping pong game. If it gets too open, then I think you clearly leave the pitch as a loser. Hence, we will approach the game similarly as we did in the first half of the season.”
On paper you’re on a par with Bayern, do you see it that way?
“I think that we are definitely not at eye level with Bayern Munich. Therefore, we already know as a team and a club where we are coming from. It is not self-evident that we can play in the Bundesliga, then even play such games with the same number of points. That is remarkable, special, particularly considering the duration of the season played. It is not matchday three, five or seven anymore. We have played two thirds of the season. Hence, it is really special and also new for me. However, naturally it feels great and I am curious to see how the game will end on Sunday.”
Bayern & Dortmund are always under pressure, but Union Berlin has nothing to lose. Do you see it that way too?
“Yes, of course. However, that may sound easy, but the mind is there when you play in Munich in a full stadium with 70 000 spectators. The mind plays a role as well. Of course, we have to play cleverly and not be silly. If you are too free, then you probably open too many spaces and we don’t want to do that. So, we will play smart. We need a good tactic, a top performance from every individual. Perhaps a surprise is possible.”
Last season Europa League qualification, this season Union is playing for a top 4 spot. The fans and many still have to pinch themselves. How do you explain this fairytale journey?
“I definitely think that we have a clear plan how we want to play football. I think one can see that week by week. There is not much change. I think our tactic is most of the time the same. Of course, you adapt it to the opponent. However, I think that a big role is the locker room, the team, the togetherness, the competition. That gives you a drive. We have a lot of good players that are behind us as well on the bench, but who still don’t begrudge us when we are standing on the pitch and win a lot of games. Few divas, but still a healthy competition. One can see that in the performances and the results, that everything is right in the team. That is the only way to be successful.”
Do you know the Bayern story from 2004 (they played Union Berlin in a friendly to help raise money for the club)? That shows how far Union has come in the last 20 years, right?
“No, that is a bit too long ago for me. Hence, I can’t say much about that. However, I can say that the path Union has taken in the last years is unique. I think there are not a lot of teams in German football that took a path like that, also in such a straight line. Especially, if you look at the past few years it is really special and unique. Respect for that.”
We’re about to watch your goal against Leipzig. You immediately ran to the fans. How would you describe the Union fan support?
“It is insane what they give to us and how they support us. At home and away as well. It is really special. One also has the feeling – like last weekend – when it didn’t go so well, if you get a point against Schalke or if you lose, which hasn’t been the case this year at home. They are not mad at you. Somehow, even if you lose they give you a good feeling. I think that shows how special they are and how much they can give us, also in tight games.
When your feet hurt in the 70th minute, but you can see that the whole stadium is full and they push you forward, it unleashes strengths. That is really special here and really good.”
One great example of the fan support was after the Europa League defeat to Saint Gilloise, do you remember?
“Yes, definitely. We didn’t play a good game. Of course, we wanted to have a good start in the Europa League. Unfortunately, that didn’t work. We players were a little bit down. However, when you see how the fans are standing here, how they applaud you and sing for you, then it gives you hope and courage for the upcoming games. What can be possible. One could see then that we started a series, we won four consecutive games and progressed to the next round in the Europa League. We owe part of this to the fans.”
You’ve certainly experienced the fans & atmosphere before, but how different is it when playing for Union Berlin?
“Yes. I also came here as an opponent two, three times. There were never nice games, a lot of fights. Of course, you could feel the force of the fans, because the stadium is very tight. A lot of standing fans. Although not terrifying, but one was impressed. Now if one has the fans for him, if you have them behind your back, that often means unleashing strengths. As one could see this season we came back from behind. We turned around
games, we turned around games here after the 90th minute and I think that it has a connection with the fans for sure.”
We know that here it’s a big family, the stadium is the living room. But do you have something personal, a moment where you really noticed that?
“Yes, definitely. I think it was directly the first Bundesliga game, which naturally was a very special and important game for the club against Hertha here at home when we won – I believe – 3:1. It was insane. To win the derby in front of that atmosphere. One was mentally cracked a bit, you just thought “wow, what a stadium, what kind of fans.” It was a very special day.”
What was it about Union Berlin that convinced you to come here?
“Last year I qualified for the Europa League with Freiburg as well. That was also a point, that I would like to play in the Europa League. On the other hand, the conversations with the responsible persons and the coach were really good. He gave me a really good feeling. He told me where he would see me, in which position. That suited me very well. Furthermore, Berlin is a really beautiful city and with the knowledge of the previous away
games, what kind of fans are here and what stadium is here. These were three, four points in sum that suited me very well and then I didn’t have to think about it a lot and decided in favor of Union.”
You are another example of the type of player Union Berlin sign. Of a certain age, a certain maturity who then blossom at the club. Would you agree?
“Yes, of course. I wanted to take a step forward in my career. I was in Freiburg for a very long time, six years. I wanted to try out something new. Hence, one thinks a lot about what the next step should be. With hindsight, after two thirds of the season I can say that the decision was perfect. I play a lot, I score goals, but one couldn’t expect that. For me it was just important to take a new step, to find a new challenge. I think the decision that I took was really, really good.”
Urs Fischer and his coaching team are the architects of Union Berlin’s success. How would you describe him as a coach and as a person?
“I think he is a person who is just crazy about football, a person who loves football. There is a reason why he has been active in the Bundesliga for such a long time. The period of coaches staying at other clubs is not that long. Hence, he does a lot of things right. Tactically he always gives us a lot along the way. Therefore, he is a really, really good coach.”
And as a person?
“Of course, as a player you have a lot do to with the coach, but you still have a certain distance, a player-coach relationship. However, I find it good that he behaves with all the players in the same way. That is very important for me. This speaks in his favor. He has his way how he is and I think that it is a really good one.”
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