Photographer: Paul-Philipp Knust
Derbies are funny things. If Man Utd beat Man City, England beat Scotland, or Hamburg beat St. Pauli, it’s just another game, another three points, another smaller team dismissed. Bragging rights are used out of a sense of duty rather than any real necessity to rub the opponent’s nose in it.
After all, a quick look at the history books or the league table more than suffices to that end. Everyone moves quickly on with just a cursory glance at the calendar to see when revenge might be possible. Reverse the result, however, and it’s so much more than just another a game. Bragging rights become deeply coveted, and pride gets dented and swears retribution. Emotions rise and rivalry increases. Derby Day becomes D-Day.
Maybe a Union victory is exactly what the Berlin derby needed. After the hype-filled lead-up to the first encounter in September, the hard-fought 1-1 in Köpenick failed to ignite a rivalry that has no real sense of itself.
The form book didn’t give Union a prayer on Saturday. A single win on the road in over a year. Up against Hertha, five points clear at the top of the table. In a quick chat with the EXBERLINER sportsdesk last week, Pal Dardai, Hertha’s most capped player, seemed quite surprised to be asked what the game means to the Hertha players. “In the past, it [the relationship between Hertha and Union] was a big thing," he said. But now? Three-one victory, he confidently predicted. Fans of Hertha must have felt a twinge of unease – favourites in a high profile game? This couldn’t end well.
It certainly started well though. Hertha were in the lead after just eleven minutes, Hubnik heading in at the back post from Mijatovic’s cross. The Union defence was shambolic, with the keeper Höttecke flapping at the cross and Peitz failing to clear the loose ball.
It looked very much Hertha would steamroller their neighbours, who were struggling even to string two passes together. The gulf in class between the two teams was evident as Rukavytsya, Raffael and Ramos combined outside the Union box, culminating in a stinging volley from the Colombian being palmed away by Höttecke.
With Union reeling and dragging the game into a foul-fest in the centre of the park, the second goal seemed inevitable. Instead, Hertha took their foot off the gas and the visitors were slowly but surely allowed to find their footing. Passes started finding their targets and the large red contingent of the sold-out Olympiastadion started finding their voice.
Eight minutes before the break, Union built patiently from the back, keeping the ball on the floor until Stuff’s hopeful long-ball to Mosquera at the edge of the box. He handled the ball while controlling it, but the volley that followed was of the finest quality, and, to a neutral at least, more than forgave the indiscretion. Hertha fans looked at each other in disbelief. That wasn’t supposed to happen – 15 minutes earlier, yet another misplaced pass from a Union player was greeted with derisory chants of “You’re just too stupid!” Well, the stupids were level at half-time, and looking ominously more and more comfortable on the ball, and tackling with a great deal more purpose.
After the break, Hertha continued making chances, but continued missing them too. First Friend, then Ramos. Hertha’s strikeforce were increasingly beginning to look like they had never met before today, so poor was their link-up play. Pierre-Michel Lasogga’s youthful determination, enthusiasm and eye for goal were conspicuous by their absence. Raffael was too deep to properly support the misfiring strikers, and Rukavytsya on the wing was entirely anonymous.
Union turned the game on its head on 71 minutes. Torsten Mattuschka’s free-kick squeaked through the wall and caught Mikel Aerts struggling at his near post. A lead deserved for just how bad Hertha had become since the opening minutes, and how vastly Union had improved.
The final 20 minutes elapsed without any major assaults on the Union goal. Markus Babbel introduced only Domochivskiy and Lustenberger to try to turn the tide. The latter is a solid midfielder, but certainly not a game-changer.
The final whistle blew, and the Union players went wild. The lone Union fan sitting near this half of the EXBERLINER sportdesk in the Ostkurve was warmly congratulated by the disappointed Hertha fans all around him, as abuse was specifically directed to the Hertha player’s insufficient efforts. Markus Babbel mollified them somewhat after the game, “we brought this on ourselves. I want to apologise to our fans.” But no-one begrudged Union the victory. Maybe a ‘proper’ rivalry, one with vitriol and hate, is overrated after all.