1. FC Union Berlin and Royale Union Saint-Gilloise played out a furious 3-3 draw in a snowy Alte Försterei on Thursday evening, confounding all those who’d expected something cagier. But it took all of Union's fabled qualities of resilience to do so, coming back from behind three times with goals from Josip Juranovic, Robin Knoche and Sven Michel.
1. FC Union Berlin: Rönnow- Trimmel (77. Gießelmann), Doekhi, Knoche, Leite, Juranović – Thorsby (77. Leweling), Khedira, Haberer (63. Laïdouni) – Becker (77. Michel), Behrens (64. Siebatcheu)
Royale Union St. Gilloise: Moris – Nieuwkoop, Burgess, Kandouss, Van Der Heyden – El Azzouzi, Lynen, Lapoussin – Amani (85. Puertas), Boniface (85. Nilsson), Vertessen (80. Adingra)
Goals: 0:1 Boniface (28.), 1:1 Juranović (42.), 1:2 Vertessen (58.), 2:2 Knoche (69.), 2:3 Boniface (72.), 3:3 Michel (89.)
Don’t we know you from somewhere?
It seems like a strange quirk of fate that the first ever team to play in Europa League competition at the Alte Försterei would come back for the first knock-out European fixture here. Royale Union Saint-Gilloise were also the last team to win here, their 1-0 victory somehow more resounding than reflected in the score line.
But many who had seen the last 180 minutes of play between the sides would be found as jibbering wrecks by the end. Saint-Gilles were clinical, clever and deadly on the break, much as was to be expected, but Union were also suddenly malleable, shaky at the back in a way rarely seen nowadays out here in Köpenick.
Union’s quiet revolution since that first fixture, growing accustomed to the unique demands of European competition, growing in confidence and in stature, would require some of their more old-fashioned virtues to drag themselves back into this pulsating, superb tie. Again and again and again they came back from the very edge of defeat.
Urs Fischer could only shake his head at times. He wanted to lay down a foundation for the away leg next week. It’s unlikely this was how he foresaw it.
For he had been careful to say that the similarities between the sides would make this tightly poised again. He added the experience of Josip Juranovic, who has played in the Champions league group stages already this year as well as in a World Cup semi-final, at left-back, just as he had at the weekend against Köln; and he retained his faith in Kevin Behrens up front. Morten Thorsby, about whom he was glowing in his press conference on Wednesday, came in for Aissa Laidouni on the left of midfield. Against Ajax in Amsterdam he had, after all, had his best performance in an Union shirt by a mile.
Saint-Gilles clever, and score first. Juranovic equalises beautifully
Thorsby started like a whirlwind, tearing into Senne Lynen almost straight from kick off, a sign of his intent. Becker won a corner. It was hit deep by Juranovic, but Knoche’s header fell into the crowd. Saint-Gilles broke, the lively double-goalscorer Victor Boniface taking the ball off Yorbe Vertessen and scurrying right, but his attempt to square lolled easily into the waiting arms of Frederik Rönnow.
Rani Khedira was, as ever, at the heart of everything, the centre circle as if his private domain. He robbed Lazare Amani, he robbed Boniface and squared to Doekhi. He makes his unheralded job look so simple at times, he is an often masterful holding midfielder.
But as Fischer had predicted the opposition were sitting deep in their own half. It tempted Union forward, Danilho Doekhi crossing from the byline on the right. Trimmel forcing Loic Lapoussin ever further backwards into his own half on the right. Fischer had said that Union would have to deal with this, he‘d been working on it all week in training. It is a consequence of success, another pitfall to be negotiated.
Union had the first real chance as they poured onto Saint-Gilles in the opening sorties. Sheraldo Becker volleyed into the ground, the ball bouncing up towards goal but it was palmed over by Anthony Moris in the Saint-Gilles goal. Diogo Leite flicked the ensuing corner on but Kevin Behrens could not get onto the end of it from inside the six-yard box.
But they needed to be careful, they were guilty of getting a little too gauche at times with their passing. Juranovic had to show quick feet to avoid the attentions of Bart Nieuwkoop on the left after 15 minutes.
Behrens then hit the post a minute later, rising to meet Juranovic’s corner, his header pushed onto it by Moris, and dawdling for just a second on the line, threatening to squeak over. But it was hoicked away gratefully by a defender in the panicked crowd. At the other end, Rönnow claimed a high corner under the bustling attentions of Boniface
And the snow came down, illuminated in the floodlights. If it hadn’t erupted into a breathtaking tie as of yet - and it would – the Alte Försterei certainly looked the part.
Yorbe Vertessen clattered Thorsby with a brutal charge, getting a yellow card in the process. Thorsby got up and dusted himself down. He was incensed when called for a challenge on Boniface, knowing he had won the ball. He then had the ball taken off him by Lapoussin, but he won it back again off Boniface.
Union had to show some patience too, Khedira circulating the ball, as Saint Gilles took their turn to stroke it around their back line. The vice-captain almost set Juranovic free with a delicious little pass with the outside of his boot after 23 minutes
Amani was in the middle of everything for the guests, a mirror image of Khedira, whirling and bustling. He went down under Leite’s challenge tracking back, Khedira threw him the ball for the resulting free kick with poorly disguised disgust.
Saint-Gilles thought they had seen a handball in the crowd in the union box after 25 minutes, and Behrens almost got in ahead of Oussama El Azzouzi at the other end as the game started to open up.
However, out of nowhere St. Gilles took the lead. Boniface picked the ball up near the edge of the box. He looked up and hit it, for all the world it looked like it was going over, but it had taken a wicked deflection and dropped inside the top corner behind a stunned looking Rönnow, wondering where in all the world it had come from.
Union had the ball in their net after 35 minutes as Thorsby flicked Behrens’ drive on, but he had been standing well offside, and he knew it; you could see by the laissez faire way he stuck that long, pale limb out behind him.
Amani brought down Juranovic on the edge of the box, but the referee waved Union’s desperate claims away. It mattered little. Ismael Kandouss brought down a loitering Becker as the ball squirmed its way to him in a dangerous position by the edge of the box. Union had a free kick 25 yards out towards the left of centre.
Becker and Juranovic stood over the ball, but it was the Croatian who would strike. He took his time, placing it meticulously on the sodden pitch. He took a short run up and hit it hard and true with his right superbly, bending away from the diving Moris.
It looked as if the spirit of Torsten Mattuschka had come back for the just briefest of glorious moments.
The crowd erupted, a new spring in their steps and the sides went in level at half time. There was plenty more to come.
Saint-Gilles take the lead, Union peg them back. Saint-Gilles take the lead, Union peg them back
Union started full of intent. Beckers gorgeous little back-heel almost setting Thorsby through via the boot of Behrens. Though they were facing away from the Waldseite this time Union looked determined, the noise behind them driving them on. Christian Burgess had to be smart to stop Thorsby from shooting in the box after Juranovic’s searching long ball towards the back post was nodded on. He would then cut out Behrens’ clever cut back away from the attentions of Becker.
Lynen got a yellow for bundling Thorsby over as he broke onto Becker’s through ball. Union were now dominant, Saint Gilles reduced to hitting long clearances as Union pushed and pressed them ever further back into their own half.
But their danger on the break was an ever-present, waiting for the slightest mistake before springing their finely honed traps. They did it next through Siebe van der Heyden. Union were suddenly out-numbered at the back, and he slid the ball through for Vertessen who finished coolly past Rönnow, giving the keeper no chance.
Fischer reacted, bringing on Laidouni and Jordan for Behrens and Haberer. It took three defenders to stop Jordan shooting from inside the six yard box almost straight away. Laidouni did even better, beating Amani on the left and squaring, winning a corner after a lung busting charge forwards towards the byline
Leite hit the post from Trimmel’s superb ball in from the left. He’d just seen another one bundled away. But the referee went to the screen. The ball had sprung off Burgess’s hand, Union had a penalty.
Robin Knoche stepped up to take it, just as he had against Braga here, but at the other end now.
Knoche stood up tall; Moris danced on his line. He tapped the cross bar, spreading his arms, making himself as big as possible. Knoche struck the penalty well, but the keeper saved to his left. Knoche, however, hadn’t stopped. The coolest man in the building, he let his momentum carry him onwards and hit the rebound past the now stricken keeper. It was 2-2.
The game grew furious. As Union pushed they left more gaps at the back.
But again the Belgians countered, and again Union were suddenly outnumbered as Nieuwkoop burst down the left. And again they scored so easily. He squared for Boniface who added his second of the evening. Fischer stalked his technical area, his hands in his pockets, his thoughts of all Union's solidity fading away into the night air. He sent on Sven Michel, Jamie Leweling and Niko Giesselmann.
Michel had scored the winner in Brussels with a glorious lunging volley off his toes. Fischer could only hope he’d conjure something similar again here. Little did anyone there know.
Giesselmann’s wicked ball towards Jordan was just about taken care of by Burgess. It then took a superb tackle from Knoche on Boniface to stop him as they countered again, his timing impeccable.
Tempers frayed. Khedira and Leite were livid, the referee clinging on, Giesselmann looked astonished to get a yellow card in the thronging of bodies out there with five minutes to play as he asked anyone about who might know, "why me?". Saint-Gilles tried to play the ball into the corner, Union strived to get it back. The noise rose and the snow fell and the clock wound down.
It was all set up for Michel to supply the final, ludicrous touch.
A final ball was lobbed into the box from the left. Michel watched it drop over his shoulder, and, somehow managing to take his time, he volleyed past Moris to make it 3-3. He had done it again, and Union had come back for a third time. There was bedlam on the pitch, a riot in the stands.
There was still time for Cameron Puertas to shoot at Rönnow from distance, for Leweling to have a shot stopped by Moris, for Knoche to disposess Puertas in the box. Juranovic shot over after Jordan’s knockdown. They were railing away at each other now like old fighters, all those thoughts of stability, of calm, banished to another realm.
It was utterly compelling. Fischer was caught between frustration at his side’s mistakes, and pride at their spirit and their morale. The second leg would be a new game, he said, and "we’ll go into that looking for a win".
As if things could ever be so easy.