1.FC Union Berlin: Frederik Rönnow – Tymoteusz Puchacz (Christopher Trimmel), Diogo Leite, Robin Knoche (Jamie Leweling), Paul Jaeckel, Julian Ryerson – Janik Haberer (Tim Skarke), Rani Khedira, Andras Schäfer (Genki Haraguchi) – Jordan Siebatcheu, Sheraldo Becker (Kevin Behrens)
SC Braga: Matheus – Nuno Sequeira, Paulo Oliveira, Vitor Tormena, Fabiano Silva – Ricardo Horta, Uros Racic (Andre Horta), Al Musrati – Simon Banza (Abel Ruiz), Vitinha (Andre Castro), Alvaro Djalo (Iuri Medeiros)
Attendance: 17, 782
Goals: 1-0 (Vitinha)
Union with the better chances in a stop-start half
2,500 Unioner had travelled to Braga for this, for Union’s first ever away game in the Europa League. And there was something fitting about it being here, in the magnificent Stadio Municipal, a cavernous arena carved out of the rock, torn from the earth. The pitch a broad rolling plain. The sun set over hills dotted with the spires of hundreds of chapels visibly in the distance. It was fitting. Glorious, even.
For Union, though. It would also come with the reminder that European football can hang on the smallest of margins, all it can take is a moment of unclarity to have everything unravel. A single lapse of concentration. Braga had one major chance, and they took it, winning 1-0. It was heartbreaking.
But that there were still hundreds of Union fans kettled outside, trying patiently to get in as kick-off approached proved that even the most stunning of settings still needs fans to be treated with more dignity, care and attention. The Unioner inside wouldn’t sing until the majority were in.
When they did it was as if there’d been an eruption inside those jagged rockfaces behind the goals. They had made a more than eloquent point. And they wouldn’t stop.- They were kept behind for half an hour after the final whistle and, though stunned, they largely sung through that, too
Urs Fischer had been asked about the chances of Tymoteusz Puchacz starting, or even just playing a role in this tie, but he, cryptic as ever, just said that everyone had a chance. But there he was in the starting XI at left back, with Julian Ryerson, celebrating another international call-up, crossing to the right where he replaced the captain, Christopher Trimmel. Andras Schäfer, the baby-faced whirlwind took Genki HaraguchI’s place in midfield.
Union started off on the front foot. Ryerson skipped one challenge, set Becker off on a run who squared to Jordan, his shot skating agonisingly wide of Matheus’s right hand post. It had just been five minutes but Union had laid a sign to their pace on the break. They were pushing Braga back, playing a different game to how they started against Bayern, also against St. Gilloise.
Then Schäfer ran at Ricardo Horta, choosing to dribble on and on into infinity, his charge stopped by Nuno Sequeira. And then after quarter of an hour the game opened up suddenly. Jordan set Sheraldo Becker through, his delicate chip palmed away well by Matheus for a corner. Puchacz took it deep where Diogo Leite, the homecoming king - with something to prove against a side who barely played him in the second half of his season here on loan - rose and hit the post with a thumping header.
Braga’s front three, though they were interchanging at will, full of tricks and flicks, were being outplayed by Union’s back line as the clock wound around towards the half hour mark. And Jordan’s movement and Sheraldo’s pace and Schäfer’s wit and dynamism were a constant threat at the other end. The latter two combining for a training ground free-kick routine, Becker cleverly pulling it back for his Hungarian team-mate, but Schäfer screwed his shot and it dropped into the arms of Mateus.
It would prove to be the story of the match.
Al Musrati barged Becker as he was on the dance, having spun past Uros Racic already. But the referee waved play on, somewhat strangely. It had been a stop-start affair so far, not the fluent, flowing football European nights are supposed to deliver. He gave a free kick for a more innocuous Ryerson block on Banza just two minutes later. Djalo, always on the ball, always up to something, blasted his shot from it wide.
Horta showed his danger just after, too, a clever turn from Racic gave him space to shoot, he hit it with his right, but it was deflected wide. And with a minute of time added on Rönnow saved with his feet from Banza again as he bore down on his goal. He stood up, held his ground and spread himself.
A single lapse leads to Braga’s winner
As deep red flares erupted from the Union end, the players took it as a signal to charge. Julian Ryerson immediately set free by Becker, his shot just wide. Fischer was off his seat, calling Janik Haberer across for instruction. Later he would be up again, his hands out wide, imploring the referee, or his arms folded to hide the tension. He chewed his nails, he paced his technical area.
Schäfer backheeled cleverly to Ryerson whose header was claimed by Mateus. It had gone from stop-start to a roar, Banza’s cleverly disguised cross from the right flying across the box with Rönnow out of position for the first time. Haberer stood over a theatrical Djalo as he rolled on the floor. As soon as he was up again, he forced Puczchak into shepherding the ball out for a goal kick under pressure.
Sheraldo skewed a cross wide when given the ball by Haberer just before the hour mark. He roared into the night sky in frustration. The Bundesliga’s player of the month has set himself the highest of standards and he hated not being able to live up to them.
Leite should have done better when he suddenly found himself with a header in the box after Khedira’s clever, clipped ball from the inside left.
With 20 minutes to go Fischer had already made two changes, bringing on Genki Haraguchi and Trimmel for the industrious Puchacz and the wheeling, tricky, effervescent, fan favourite Schäfer.
The suddenly the world fell in. A misplaced pass suddenly set the substitute Iuri Medeiros free. His drive was brilliantly saved by Rönnow, but the keeper he had only managed it to palm it into the path of the onrushing Vitinha. His finish was true. It had been the first time Union had lost concentration, a single second when the space opened up. But it was the kind of lapse that gets punished at the highest levels. Suddenly Vitinha had another chance, this time Rönnow’s save was put well wide. The Braga fans were now roused.
Fischer made three changes with ten minutes to go, a final throw of the dice, taking off Knoche, Becker and Haberer, for Kevin Behrens, Jamie Leweling and Tim Skarke. He would forgo any defensiveness; if he was going to go down here, he would do so fighting. Trimmel got down the right and tried to find Jordan.
A final corner came in from Trimmel, there was a slide by Khedira, another ball in from the captain, and yet another corner. A throw, a clipped cross just too far, a desperate lunge and a breathles surge, and a final ball lofted up towards the mire. But there were a bundle of red shirts in the box for every Unioner in there too, it was every man for himself.
But in the end it all came to nothing, just the hanging shoulders of a troupe of players who’d been undone again in a competition that, though far from over, is beginning to haunt them when everything else seems to be going so well.
In the end it came to nothing, because of a single, simple moment.