There was a back-to-school vibe in Köpenick this weekend as 1.FC Union hosted spVgg Greuther Fürth in the first home game of the season. Though the attendance was a little disappointing at a shade over 11,000 - slightly down on last season's average, but with an extra 4,000 solid regulars more than only three seasons ago showing just how far the club has come - there was still a roaring atmosphere as old friends met again and showed off their suntans and brand new Torsten Mattuschka pencil cases, the new shirts box-fresh and resplendant in a way that you know will not last until the end of the year when it's time for those photographs you take home to your mum.
I‘m not sure that it was, as Uwe Neuhaus said, "The worst performance in the three years since I‘ve been here." (The away game at Cottbus last season springs immediately to mind: Union were beaten like a red-headed stepchild.) But the post-summer cobwebs were certainly there to see. Fürth indeed could have been 2-0 up within the first 20 minutes as slide-rule passes shredded the red seas of the Union backline like a Bavarian Moses, and one particular run from Christopher Nöthe took him jinking past innumerable flummoxed Union players. That they didn't capitalise was due to a couple of neat saves from Jan Glinker, some profligate finishing, and a generosity in front of goal that Diana Ross would be proud of. In a traditional wildly swinging simile, the only thing that Mac Younga-Mouhani looked like stopping in the name of love was his opportunities as a starter in the "Sechser" holding midfield role. He is as indefatiguable as ever, and has come back from similar problems before, but sadly looked every one of his 36 years. The yellow card he recieved early was more to do with a slovenliness in the tackle that makes Paul Scholes look like Claude Makelele as opposed to malice; one lunge was so late that he actually arrived about two feet behind the opposing player. Maybe he was being weighed down by the monkey on his back: the past 12 times he has faced Fürth, he has not once been on the winning side.
On a weekend where the career of one hugely promising young sportsman has gone tits up (also an incident which inspired massive overuse of the word "tragic", considering what is going on at home in Pakistan right now), it was nice to see another one potentially blossoming. Christoph Menz had an encouraging second half as replacement for Younga-Mouhani - following on from his efforts against La Coruña - and could well find himself making the role his own this season. One barnstorming run was a reminder of Schweini at his best under Louis van Gaal, and he snapped into tackles with a purpose that had eluded Mac.
In the first half, it looked at times as if Björn Brunnemann had simply decided to do it all himself. Obviously delighted to have a full pre-season under his belt and free of the niggles that have dogged his year or so at Union, he was irrepressible and, to put it bluntly, a right handful. Which was good beacuse somebody had to be. Mattuschka was too preoccupied covering his slumbering teammates in midfield to push forward, leaving a huge gap for the new Santi Kolk to play in, but none of the ball for him to use. Kolk improved in the second half, scoring beautifully to bring Eisern back to 2-1, though his scuffed penalty was well placed, but underwhelmingly hit - and easily saved. 2-2 would have flattered Union, but they are without a doubt made of pretty strong stuff: for 20 minutes in the second half, they threw eveything at Fürth, to no avail. For what it's worth, Fürth were mostly excellent: fast on the break, technically superb on the ball and more than happy to get stuck in to the nasty stuff, too. Almost like a second division version of Arsenal‘s unbeatables, equal parts menace with lashings of speed and flair... Okay, the example doesn't stand up to scrutiny, but they did justifiy why many see them as dark horses in this division.
Now there's a break for the interminable EURO 2012 qualifiers, which gives us time to indulge in the new national sport of speculating on whether Michael Ballack will ever return to the national set-up, and if yes, then in what situation. It also gives Neuhaus time to get his team together for the trip to the car crash that is Paderborn at the moment.