1. FC Union Berlin vs Sporting Braga
UEFA Europa League, 5. Group match
1. FC Union vs SC Braga
UEFA Europa League, 5. Group match
Knoche's Penalty Beats Braga
1. FC Union Berlin: Frederik Rönnow – Julian Ryerson, Diogo Leite, Robin Knoche, Danilho Doekhi, Christopher Trimmel – Janik Haberer (Genki Haraguchi), Rani Khedira, Morton Thorsby (Andras Schäfer) – Jordan Siebatcheu (Kevin Behrens), Sheraldo Becker (Jamie Leweling)
Sporting Clube de Braga: Matheus – Nuno Sequeira, Vitor Tomena, Paulo Oliveira, Fabiano (Simon Banza) – Al Musrati, Andre Castro (Andre Horta), Iuri Medeiros (Rodrigo Gomes) – Ricardo Horta, Abel Ruiz, Vitinha
Goal: Robin Knoche, 1-0 (68')
A tough first half, Union with the better chances, but scoreless
Urs Fischer looked annoyed when asked before his side’s crucial clash against Sporting Club de Braga if Union could perform in these “finals”. He answered bluntly that both Malmö games had been must win encounters, and that Union had mastered them okay.
And this superb team performance showed that his faith in his players' abilities in the face of untold pressure would be well placed.
The only question that remained before kick off would be whether this would lead to the Europa League, or in the Conference League. Following victory, they still need to win in belgium next week, but their further participation in the Europa League still lay in their own hands.
Fischer had dismissed the question, as he would tell you in that gruff manner of his when he gets a question he doesn’t like, that it didn't matter anyway. Every game is a cup final, every match a must win.
But the atmosphere in a deafening, uproarious Alte Försterei told a different tale to the one portrayed by a dry glimpse of the group table. There was expectation in the air, and Braga, too – former Europa League finalists, after all - needed a win.
Accordingly Fischer made just two changes from the side that had lost so disappointingly in Bochum at the weekend. In came Danilho Doekhi on the left of the back three for Paul Jaeckel and Morton Thorsby for Andras Schäfer. Janik Haberer, who limped off so despondently on Sunday, was fit and ready to go on the left.
In the first minute Union attacked, Haberer on the right crossing for Becker, his header was palmed away to Thorsby who couldn’t quite force it over the line. Straight afterwards Becker ran onto a mistake by Castro but the keeper was alert to his constant danger and slid to grab the ball off his toes.
Trimmel crossed from the right, a dangerous, whipped ball that Jordan flicked with his heel as it worked across to Haberer. His shot, however, flew wide of the left hand upright.
Robin Knoche then showed why he’s getting deserved place in conversations about the German national side, nipping in to rob Vitinha with the elegant grace that defines all great centre-halves. He made it look so easy, just as he did when he picked the same player's pocket in the second half.
Union were rampant at first, Becker down the right, Julian Ryerson on the left. But things would settle down into a quieter rhythm after the first quarter of an hour. Braga were content to try and ride out the storm, keeping the ball when they could, passing it between the back four and midfield. Trying to deafen their ears to the roaring, echoing, calling-and-responding Unioner.
Ryerson was up and down the left like a madman, he danced past Fabiano like he wasn’t there at all, his clever through ball to Haberer just overhit. Union won a corner on the half hour mark, Thorsby met it with a well placed, looping header, but it dropped just past the stanchion.
There were similarities to the first tie between the sides in Portugal, when Braga used their one big chance, from one single mistake, and Union were still right to be wary here. Paulo Oliveira hit a wicked free kick from distance after half an hour but Rönnow grabbed it on the second attempt. Ruiz dragged a shot wide after 35 minutes having been played in by the industrious Iuri Medeiros. Al Musrati was their lynchpin at the back of midfield; Fabiano a pacy, wicked outlet on the right.
In the final action of the half, Becker found himself alone in the box with the ball dropping over his shoulder, but it was all he could do to stab it towards goal, Matheus did well to make a sprawling stop.
A VAR decided penalty proves decisive.
Andras Schäfer replaced Morton Thorsby immediately. Fischer hoping to extract another half of his impish magic and energy as the second half began. He made an immediate effect, too, jinking onto a ball from Rani Khedira, finding Haberer who moved it on to Ryerson. His cross was just behind Jordan, but it was a classical Union break, the ball moved with simplicity and pace as soon as it was stolen off the opposition. The Hungarian would torment Bruno Sequeira another time, going outside, and later, Paulo Oliveira on the inside.
Some say that Union are ugly, this proved the lie. And Schäfer was making the difference.
Braga countered, Vitinha setting up Abel Ruiz who hit a wicked first time shot from the edge of the box near the hour. Rönnow was well set to punch it away, though. Ruiz then slipped Trimmel but couldn’t get on the end of a ball over the top on the hour.
Then Union got a break, a bit of deserved fortune, when Schäfer’s cross into the crowd packed in the box struck Fabiano’s arm twice. The English referee, Craig Pawson, had played on, but then all stopped for a VAR check. The wait was interminable as he went to check the screens at the side of the pitch, and then as the Braga players complained and argued about the injustice of it all. Their coach would get a yellow card, too, for his protests.
But Robin Knoche held the ball calmly, he waited, just as he had against Malmö, amongst the madness breaking out all around him.
He buried it, hard, nerveless, and to the keeper’s right. 1-0.
Khedira came as close to scoring as he has all year straight afterwards with a majestic, bending volley on the turn. Union were in the ascendancy. Braga made two substitutions after 75 minutes, one of them, Rodrigo Gomes, almost changing things straight away, but his touch was just a touch too heavy as he tried to round Rönnow.
Union came back at them. Schäfer winning a corner on the right. And then another. Trimmel was then brought down by Vitinha, just outside the box, it was dangerous. It lead to another corner, more pressure building, the Unioner creating a roar that felt like a kick to the stomachs of all those inside the packed terraces.
With the clock winding down there was still time for Kevin Behrens to hit a towering header at Matheus from a corner. And for Doekhi to bring down Vitinha, never far away from the action, on the edge of the Union box. Ricardo Horta stood over it, Nuno Sequeira loitering nearby. The wall was moved back and back, and the noise grew and grew. Horta hit it and for just a second it was as if the ball had just slipped through Rönnow’s hands.
Breath was taken as sharply as the ball had been struck. But Rönnow had got just enough contact on it to send it over the bar.
Braga would fight til the bitter end, pumping balls forward in inelegant desperation, but Union’s dogged and resolute backline would hold through the final four minutes of time added on. It was a superb win, anchored by their defence, it was the sight of a side showing the experience they’ve gained, the solidarity they possess.
And Fischer? Well Fischer smiled. He knew that his boys could deal with cup finals all along.
Top Europa League Clash
As the group stage of the Europa League nears its end, Union will play their final home game tomorrow (Thursday, 27.10.2022) in a crucial tie against second placed SC Braga. The result will determine which European competition Union will play in after the winter break. Kick off in the Alte Försterei is at 18:45.
As things stand
Only one point separates Union (on six) from Sporting Clube de Braga (seven), the 2011 Europa League finalists. A win would see Union jump above them into second place and put the chance of a place in the Europa League final stages into their own hands, with only Royale Union Saint Gilloise to play.
A defeat, on the other hand, would mean the exact opposite. Braga would move a full four points clear, leaving Union with no chance of advancing further in this competition. They would have to console themselves with an already guaranteed place in the latter stages of the Europa Conference League
Braga's form is currently somewhat up and down. Their eight game winning streak came to an end two weeks after beating Union at home, with a 4-1 away defeat to FC Porto. But following that they have suffered three defeats in a row, and needed a late equaliser to draw 3-3 against St. Gilloise.
After that bitter draw, the Portuguese got back on track with wins in the cup, the Taca de Portugal, and in the Primeira Liga. A more detailed opponent check can be read in the pre-match report from the away leg.
Sven Michel is not available due to a positive Corona test. Otherwise, Urs Fischer has the entire Europa League squad at his disposal.
The coach's (and Sheraldo's) views ahead of the match
Head coach Urs Fischer wants to see his side make better use of their chances, certainly when compared to the first game in Portugal: "Braga are a very well organised team. So, compared to the first leg, we need to be more efficient. We simply have to take the chances that come our way. To do that, we need to be involved in the game from the first minute. Not only with, but also without the ball."
For Sheraldo Becker, a united team performance is needed against Braga: "We know from the first leg that it will be a difficult game. But we're at home this time, which makes it special. Tomorrow is not just about [personally] scoring goals, we have to be ready in every aspect of the team."
Service info: Plan for after-work traffic on arrival
Union are expecting 350 visiting fans from northern Portugal to make it to berlin for the game. The stadium will open two hours before kick off. But due to the early kick off time (18:45), Union have asked fans to aim to arrive early, as it coincides with the general after-work rush-hour traffic.
The match will be broadcast live on RTL+. As usual, Union will also provide up to date information on the match on the club's own live ticker, as well as in English on Twitter.