Ajax vs 1. FC Union Berlin
UEFA Europa League, Play-offs, 1st Leg
Ajax vs 1. FC Union
UEFA Europa League, Play-offs, 1st Leg
Union Draw 0-0 in Amsterdam
Ajax Amsterdam: Rulli – Rensch, Timber, Bassey, Wijndal (46. Brobbey) – Berghuis, Alvarez, Taylor – Kudus, Tadic, Bergwijn (75. Klaassen)
1. FC Union Berlin: Rönnow – Juranovic, Doekhi, Knoche, Leite, Roussillon (90. Gießelmann) – Thorsby, Khedira, Laidouni – Becker (82. Michel), Behrens (70. Siebatcheu)
Despite a Morton Thorsby goal, denied for handball after a VAR decision, Urs Fischer could be forgiven for being a very happy man following his side's superb goalless draw in Amsterdam.
It was fascinating to watch the 1. FC Union and the Ajax coaches during their respective press conferences yesterday. Both had folded arms, but the way they were folded betrayed so much more than what it is to sit in front of a bunch of journalists in a large, airless room in the bowels of one of the world’s most famous stadiums.
Urs Fischer was looser, for starters. He explained that the most important thing wasn’t tonight's game, but actually when Ajax come to the Alte Försterei. “It’s about laying down a base for next week,” he said, before watching his players lay down one of the most solid, well built bases he could have ever imagined. He also said that, “You should try to enjoy it a little too,” but whether or not this was really true is best left to him to answer. Though he can certainly be proud of every single one of his players tonight.
Then he was largely ignored for a while. With Sheraldo Becker by his side he was allowed the time to let his mind focus onto more important things, like who would replace the suspended Janik Haberer, one of the standout performers of a season full of them. His answer was Morton Thorsby, a man who has played almost a hundred games in Serie A, but who hadn’t broken out at Union really as of yet.
Thorsby flourished under the responsibility, having the best game of his Union career by some distance. And though many consider it unfair that he was denied the goal he deserved, if he plays like this, he'll get many more of them. After almost twenty minutes, he found himself on the ground, spidered, with the ball somewhere around his person as Usan Tadic tried to kick it free. It was telling. He had already become increasingly influential. Tackling hard, driving into the box whenever he had the sniff of blood in the air.
He somehow even managed to tackle both Tadic and Steven Bergwijn at once after half an hour.
And flanking him Aissa Laidouni, a man who looks born to this level, who has already played 30 Champions and Europa League games.
But if Fischer looked at a certain ease, Ajax’s new boss John Heitinga’s, folded arms were tight, and tensed, gripping onto each other like the other was a life raft, as he fought off questions about his predecessor, about his side’s earlier failings, about what would happen if they lost. Not how happy he would be if they won.
No-one asked him about a 0-0 draw that saw his home fans plunged into great periods of sullen silence as the game wore on.
He gritted his teeth, “I can’t answer this question,” but nor, largely, could his players.
A furious start as the smoke started to clear
The stadium was shrouded in smoke as they kicked off, and chaos reigned for couple of minutes. Union charged at Ajax, Danilho Doekhi strode over the halfway line, Becker won a corner off Calvin Bassey. While Thorsby was engaging, pushing, striving, setting out his battle plans. He saw a volley fly over after only three minutes. It was his superb burst that set Jerome Rousillon away to cross after half an hour. Before that it was he who teamed up with Diogo Leite, alert to Alvarez, suddenly found in space in the box. They snapped at him as one, then slapped palms, job done.
It was a despeartely fast start. Mohammed Kudus was playing like a ten behind Dusan Tadic. Steven Bergwijn was drifting out left, cutting inside at pace, the Ajax full backs pushing as high as possible.
But Union are ever determined and they have each other’s backs. Khedira covered for Doekhi when Bergwijn threatened to break. Leite covered for Khedira when Berghuis threatened the same. Edson Alvarez clattered rani Khedira. Doekhi, that other returning son, though he was at Ajax for a far shorter time than Becker, flicked a Juranovic free kick- safely into hands of Geronimo Rulli.
Thorsby then cleverly won a corner off Owen Wijndal after Becker had gone down in the box. Khedira lost the ball briefly to Berghuis, but he won it back, slipping it through to Behrens on the run. His pass into Becker’s path was precise, but the strikers’ second touch was a little heavy. Khedira was fighting harder than ever it seemed – though it seems that every week at the moment. His constant running battle with Alvarez was a nail-biting drama, fit for Sunday night TV.
Union were pushing up as the half wore on, and then they go their chance as Becker found Behrens from the right, who held the ball up and turned on the penalty spot. He squared it short for Thorsby who was dragged into the mire of a tackle from behind, the ball squirming to Rousillon who hit it beautifully on the fly, but his drive was just wide of Rulli’s goal.
VAR rules out Thorsby’s goal. Union secure the draw.
Heitinga brought on the Dutch league’s top scorer, Brian Brobbey at half time, as if to prove a point about resources, or at least to try and inject some more dynamism into his side. It seemed to work, Immediately Ajax started with a delightful ball over the top from Berghuis to Bergwijn. It was then Brobbey himself who was thwarted as he planned to pull the trigger when through as Rönnow came out bravely to stop him. Union broke back like lightning, Sheraldo going on the run; suddenly Ajax countered again Bergwijn finding 20 in the box, his header flying wide under pressure from Doekhi.
And still Thorsby was everywhere.
Juranovic won a free kick, brought down by Devyne Rensch on the edge of the box after he cut inside. He stood over the ball, five yards outside the D. Ajax’s wall moved forward stutteringly; the Union players pointed it out. They staggered again; the Union players pointed it out. Juranovic’s lovely bending free kick went around them all, but was well saved by Rulli. He had to do better a minute later when Thorsby threw a fantastic diving header at another Juranovic run and cross that went over Becker’s head on the way.
So it was with a certain inevitability that Thorsby thought he had scored the winner, thinking that he had changed it all after 65 minutes, when he brought down a Rousillon ball on the penalty spot. Becker had fed the left back well, but his cross was a delight. Thorsby still had work to do though. He chested it down, shrugged off the man at his back, and took the one at his front out of the game too. He reeled away in delight, his finger pointing to the sky.
His bubble was soon burst as the referee turned to his TV. It had been decided that the Norwegian international had used his hand to control the ball. Thorsby looked stunned, he could not believe it. Nor could his teammates. He rubbed his head, he rubbed his eyes.
But Union are not where they are for a lack of fight. When Bergwijn crossed from the left, Knoche was there to head it clear. When Kudus tried to go through the middle, he was there too. When Taylor shot, Frederik Rönnow was there. As when Brobbey tried to turn in the box, Juranovic was there. Laidouni tackled both Kudus and Wijndal in the space of a minute in the left back position. It took the full weight of Bassey to stop Danilho Doekhi winning a header in the Ajax box later. It took Diogo Leite to stand up to 20 to shepherd the ball out to safety.
And up top Kevin Behrens and Sheraldo Becker ran and ran on a strength sapping, huge pitch. Becker swore when Devyne Rensch went down after he caught him, as much out of frustration as anything. He went off with ten minutes to go, sweat stinging his eyes. His whole family were here. He said he didn’t, but you can bet he wanted to show Ajax too.
But there it was again, the pressure that had been cloying at Heitinga’s shoulders, swelling the arena as the clock wound its way down and Ajax still couldn’t find a way through Union’s superb defences. All that was where there had once been deafening noise was a strange silence, all that could be heard were the Unioner over there singing in their far corner.
Rönnow saved amazingly from the feet of Kudus when suddenly it seemed that all he had to do was score, and they raised their voices again, but only briefly. For as soon as Union had the ball they went silent again.
And then when it was all over the Ajax fans, used to glorious success, started leaving in their droves, wondering what had happened, when anyone who watches them would tell you that this is exactly what Union do. They are here with absolute merit.
The coaches had appeared at the edge of their technical areas after twenty minutes or so, both arms still folded. Fischer moved a little from side to side, a pace here a pace there. But Heitinga didn’t move when he was there. He was rooted to the spot. Then something else instructive happened.
When Behrens went down with five minutes of the half to go, the players of both sides took the chance for a quick drink. Heitinga spoke to his furiously, giving out instructions. But Fischer? Fischer did nothing. Just as on the half time whistle, his players came together for a moment before going down the tunnel. It was just a moment, a fleeting pause, but it spoke volumes. He wasn’t even there to talk to them; he just let Sebastian Bönig and Markus Hoffman give the bottles out.
Just as at the final whistle, and the capping of an incredible, historic result, as the players came to the Unioner, by now drowning out even the stadium PA, Fischer was long gone too. He'd done his job. He didn’t have to say a word.
A Huge Night Beckons
In the first leg of this year's Europa League knockout play-off, 1. FC Union Berlin will face Ajax Amsterdam in the Dutch capital on Thursday, 16.02.2023. The match against the Eredivisie club will kick off at 18:45 in the Johan Cruyff Arena.
The lie of the land
When kick off comes on Thursday evening, it will start a game between two teams in absolute top form. Union have won six from six in 2023, showing their spirit and their ability to come back from whatever is thrown at them again and again.
In their victories against league rivals Hoffenheim, Bremen, Wolfsburg and Leipzig, they did just this having gone a goal down to each of them, while also underlining their own strengths in the air and from set-pieces. Seven of Union's 13 goals this year came from a resting ball.
Hosts Ajax, meanwhile - record holders in the Dutch Eredivisie with 36 titles - are also on a run of four consecutive victories and are on an unbeaten run stretching back over eleven matches.
While they sat top of the league for a long time in the first half of the season, a series of draws before the World Cup break, and then on into January, caused them to slip down to fifth. It was only with their unstoppable recent run of twelve points from four games (a perfect debut for then interim, now permanent coach Johnny Heitinga) that they climbed back up to third and are still in the title fight, three points behind leaders Feyenoord Rotterdam.
While Ajax are now third in the league with 43 points, the side who dropped out from the Champions League after an unhappy group stage campaign, are only fifth in the home table. After ten games in the league at the Cruijff Arena, they have picked up only 19 points, admittedly having done so with an average of almost three goals per game.
Their 59 goals in total are also an indication of the attacking football that has always characterised at their best. Current beneficiaries of their classic 4-3-3 formation this season are Mohammed Kudus with 14, and Brian Brobbey and Steven Bergwijn, both with 11 goals each. Ajax's king of assists this season is captain Dusan Tadić, with 15 to his name.
Apart from the suspended Christopher Trimmel and Janik Haberer, as well as the injured Andras Schäfer, Fischer can count on a full squad at his disposal.
The coaches’ views ahead of the match
"The change of coach has given Ajax stability again and so they are back in running for the championship” said Urs Fischer in his press conference on Thursday afternoon in Amsterdam. “They are a highly talented team that are used to a lot of possession, and and are good at extracting themselves from pressure situations. For us, it's about getting a good starting position for the second leg, and that against - in my eyes - a Champions League level team. Overall, it will be very difficult for us."
Ajax’s new coach John Heitinga, meanwhile, warned his players to be cautious of Union. "Union are doing a great job this year, it's not for nothing that they are in second place in the Bundesliga. They fight to the end in every game and have many strengths. Whether in transitions or in set-pieces, we always have to stay wide awake. For that we need a lot of discipline and hopefully we will have a good day."
Tickets for the match are no longer available, with both the home and away sections sold out. Further important travel information can be found here.
The match will be broadcast live on RTL+. As usual, Union will also provide information on the match in the club's own live ticker, as well as in English on twitter