1.FC Union Berlin: Frederik Rönnow – Niko Giesselmann, Danilho Doekhi (Jamie Leweling), Robin Knoche, Paul Jaeckel, Christopher Trimmel (Jullian Ryerson)– Janik Haberer (Tim Skarke), Rani Khedira, Genki Haraguchi (Andras Schäfer) – Kevin Behrens (Sven Michel), Sheraldo Becker
Royale Union St. Gilloise: Anthony Moris – Christian Burgess, Siebe Van der Heyden, Ismael Kandouss – Jose Rodriguez, Senne Lynen – Loic Lapoussin, Teddy Teuma, Bart Nieuwkoop – Dante Vanzeir (Simon Adingra), Victor Boniface (Dennis Eckert)
Goals: 0-1 Lynen (38).
Red Card: Sven Michel (90’)
Attendance: 21,512 (sold out)
Union were disappointed on their greatest evening, out-played by a skilled, fluid Royale Union St. Gilloise side who beat them 1-0.
A Fitting Stage for European Football
Urs Fischer had said before the game that Royale Union St. Gilloise were dangerous and how right he was. They were superb and deserving of their 1-0 win.
He’d said they were fast on the counter, and they were; that they would fight tooth and nail for every loose ball, and they did. He said that that they like to hit balls over the top of the lines of midfield and defence. They are, he said, using he preferred mantra, compact and organised.
Before kick-off there seemed to be a certain universal exactness to the Belgian runners-up coming to the Alte Försterei, to Union being Union’s opponents at home for the first time in Europe (apart from the largely forgotten Intertoto Cup competition of 1987).
For St.Gilloise come from a Brussels suburb called the Forest. Their fans are traditionally drawn from the working classes. They aren’t allowed to use their stadium in European competition, and they are riding the crest of a wave unprecedented in their recent history. The last time they played in Europe - in the Fairs Cup - Union Berlin were still called TSC, and they played in a country called the GDR.
The fans were roaring, of course. A tidal wave in red. Dirk Zingler had spoken of a hundred years of history here, leading to this night, and what a noise the Unioner made. A banner draped over the Waldseite saying that this was football “where it belongs”. But they were also confident after a superb start to the Bundesliga. The Unioner have been somewhat spoiled recently.
Few expected the confident football of a superb St. Gilloise.
Fischer’s caution was well placed. Maybe it’s why he chose Genki Haraguchi to come into midfield, just as he had on the first day of the season against Hertha; knowing that the atmosphere would be intense, that a wiser head could be needed in the middle of all the noise.
Union were warned early. Dante Vanzeir shot wide after only a minute, he found a gap between Robin Knoche and Danilho Doekhi, shooting just wide. St. Gilloise’s back line flickered between a three and a five, spreading wide, using the space. Then they’d suddenly burst, leaving only two at the back, flooding the midfield.
The superb Matltese midfielder Teddy Teuma schemed in midfield, pulling the strings, drifting to the left, moving up to become a third striker on the right. Vanzeir, and particularly the excellent Loic Lapoussin, were pulling and pushing Christopher Trimmel in and out, up and down.
They’d done their homework, St. Gilloise. This was going to be a test.
After 18 minutes Union had their first real chance. Haraguchi found Janik Haberer whose cross from the byline found Kevin Behrens. His shot bounced off Siebe van der Heyden for a corner, it flew just wide of the far post. It was to be Union’s only clear shot at goal in the half.
Laupoussain tormented Trimmel particularly, rondo-ing his way around him and Haraguchi after half an hour. Knoche hit a long ball over the top, it was supposed to be for Becker, but it sailed away into the evening sky for a goal kick.
Khedira was always there though, a permanent buzzing presense in midfield, snapping into tackles, looking to get the ball moving. He wasn’t without his steel though, as his clattering challenge on Teuma after 35 minutes showed.
Urs Fischer urged his defenders to step up as the half wore on, Paul Jaeckel increasingly doing so, but in doing so he would leave a gap that would prove fatal for the home side as St. Gilloise took a deserved lead after 38 minutes. Union were caught out too high after a corner, Trimmel stranded in the box, in no man’s land. His nemesis, Lapoussin found Boniface who turned a diving Haraguchi and cut inside elegantly, the ball at his toe. He slid the simplest of passes to an on-running Lynen who finished neatly with his right past Frederik Rönnow.
Union went into the break one down, their lungs burning. They’d been given the run around.
Much huffing and puffing, but St. Gilloise stand firm
Fischer sent his players out early for the second half. As the music still played and the groundsmen worked, they stretched and tried to focus. His admonishments ringing in their ears, his reminders that his warnings had gone unheeded.
Trimmel got a yellow card five minutes into the second half, dragging back Lapoussin like he was trying to stop him blowing away in the wind. Then Haraguchi’s sharp ball to Becker was snuffed out by Christian Burgess. Nothing was working.
Vanzeir headed over when found alone only a few minutes later. Again it had been Teuma, a quick give-and-go, a drop of the shoulder and a ball out to Niuewkoop. It was a close run thing, he should’ve made it two.
Union won a free kick, 25 yards out, after Burgess left a high boot on Danilho Doekhi. Niko Giesselmann took it but it came to nothing. It too often did.
So Fischer brought on Sven Michel and Andras Schäfer with half an hour to go. He had to try and turn the game. Union could hit balls up to Behrens all day but the confident Burgess was batting them all away all too easily.
They made an impact, changing the dynamics, Michel winning a corner, Schäfer chasing down the rebound. Trimmel hit a deep cross into the box towards Michel, suddenly there was something, a spark that had been missing, and the fans picked up on it too. Trimmel looked anew. He found Becker at last with space to cross. Union won another corner, and the voices rose and the sky grew darker and the flooflights shone. There was a bundle in the box, with Doekhi, Michel and Schäfer all in there.
He then made two more changes with 20 minutes to go, bringing on Julian Ryerson for the captain, Trimmel, who’d had a hard night, he'd fought and ran all the fruitless day long.
St. Gilloise were now content to sit back, absorbing Union’s pressure. But Union still had to be careful. Vanzeir beat Doekhi for sheer pace on the left, Knoche sliding in just the nick of time. It was to be the superb Genk born players’ last touch, taken off a minute later. He’d scored against Anderlecht in the derby, now he’d scored here.
Michel would shoot over. Gieselmann took a quick corner to Becker but his shot curled over the bar. He pulled his shirt over his head, his face contorted with anguish, he knew he’d overhit it the second the ball left his right foot. He knew the clock was ticking away, that this greatest of nights was turning into a disappointment. It was he who would have the last act, a diving challenge in his own six yard box to snuff out a final St. Gilloise attack.
He pounded the ground after that in frustration and anger.
But still he strived, a deep corner finding Skarke whose header plumped softly into Anthony Moris’s hands. The Belgian keeper held the ball tenderly for as long as he could. St. Gilloise players rolled about when they could. They looked better suited to this. They wound the crowd up as they wound the clock down.
And as the final whistle came it did so with a reminder that having fought so hard to get here, to host the Europa League in their own home, it was never going to be easy for 1.FC Union Berlin. For this is what they wanted, they wanted to host European football. The crowd were astonishing as ever, bringing the spirits of their forebears, the myths of iron roared out among brick and concrete and steel.
They had laid the stage. But now they just need to learn to master it.