Union secured another 1-0 win in the Europa League, with it assuring their participation in the tournament in the new year, through Sven Michel’s early goal, and a superb, disciplined performance throughout. And as the first half of the season rolls towards its end, Urs Fischer’s side’s feats are reaching heroic levels.
1. FC Union Berlin: Frederik Rönnow (Lennart Grill) - Julian Ryerson, Diogo Leite, Robin Knoche, Danilho Doekhi, Christopher Trimmel – Janik Haberer (Morton Thorsby), Rani Khedira, Genki Haraguchi (Andras Schäfer) – Sven Michel (Kevin Behrens), Sheraldo Becker (Jamie Leweling)
Royale Union Saint-Gilloise: Anthony Moris – Ismael Kandouss (Loic Lapussin), Ross Sykes, Christian Burgess, Bart Nieuwkoop – Simon Adingra, Lazare Amani (Oussama El Azzousi), Teddy Teume – Gustaf Nilsson (Victor Boniface), Dante Vanzeir (Dennis Eckert).
Goals: 0-1 Michel (5‘)
The aftershocks of 1. FC Union‘s defeat of Borussia Mönchengladbach at the weekend were slowly dissipating as Urs Fischer prepared his side for their next task, the qualification for the play-off knockout in the Europa league. But the memories that it caused were still an ever present. Julian Ryerson, restored to his natural, left hand flank, had mentioned this already, and the positive energy it had charged the squad with.
For it showed the spirit in this side, the solidarity, the fight they have inside of themselves.
But for all that there was something missing. The noise that had helped inspire Danilho Doekhi’s implausible last-kick-of-the-match winner. For there were almost no Unioner here, their roars from afar, whether in Brussels or Berlin, at Sven Michel’s opener were unheard by the Union players.
They’d shrugged it off before kick-off, Sheraldo Becker saying that they had to take on responsibility themselves, but still… they were down to 11 men.
Michel was making only his second competitive start for the club replacing Jordan Siebatcheu, off the back of his performance as a substitute against Gladbach. The other major change was Genki Haraguchi taking Andras Schäfer’s place in midfield, just as he had done in the first tie between the sides, won 2-0 by a superb Royale Union performance as group D stuttered into action for Union, what seems like a very long time ago.
A coruscating half, lit up by Michel’s volley
The wind blustered, gusting eddies of heavy, but almost imperceptibly fine rain around Den Dreef. The only sounds in the stadium were those of the home fans, even if they, too, weren’t really at home here. The pitch, treacherously slippery, lead to Danilho Doekhi getting the ball tangled up in his legs in the first minute, it was going to be a tough night, they needed to concentrate.
Diogo Leite then did well to cut out a clever pass from Lazare Amani. Amani was already a danger from midfield. Saint Gilloise have lost only once since their win at the Alte Försterei, and their technical ability and balance and confidence showed.
But Union took the lead after only five minutes, Becker lofting a perfectly placed ball into the box for Michel to meet with a superb, stretching volley that almost slunk past the outstretched left arm of Anthony Moris in the Royale Union goal. They came together again, the whole team apart from Rönnow, they knew what this meant to all the fans, not here.
It was almost two after almost quarter of an hour when Doekhi then headed Christopher Trimmel’s corner just over the bar after rising above Ismael Kandouss with a towering leap. Doekhi was everywhere, muscling Senne Lynen off the ball, before having the judgement to intercept Simon Adingra’s flat through ball into the box after a neat run, or outpacing Gustaf Nilsson as he threatened to break down Union's right. He wasn’t alone, Leite had a running battle with Nilsson, Robin Knoche shrugged off the excellent Dante Vanzeir. Doekhi’s later sliding challenge on Vanzeir was flawless.
Union’s back three covered each other, they took turns pushing up, they were there when their team-mates needed them, every single time.
Janik Haberer and Michel then combined on the left after twenty minutes, a one-two, that was moved on to Becker who chose to shoot from outside the box. He set himself, and hit it well, but it was just too high. Becker then flashed a hard pull-back across goal, just behind Michel. Ryerson turned Lazare Amani beautifully on the left after half an hour with a drop of the shoulder so slight, so well disguised, improvised and cleverly executed it could have been on stage in Vegas.
Teddy Teumer shot straight at Rönnow when he more time than he thought. Royale Union weren’t going to give this up without a fight, Vanzeir was constantly probing, Teuber pulling the strings alongside Lynen.
The rain was falling heavier as the half neared its end, but the action never abated. The USG fans singing never stopped, never dropped, and a VAR check was ignored when Trimmel slid through Nilsson on the edge of the box. It had been another lightning break by USG, of the kind that Fischer had long warned against.
But they’d come closer still. Frederik Rönnow somehow stopped Andingra’s shot when he was suddenly through one-on–one. The striker looked to put it to the keeper’s left, but he stood tall and the ball rolled agonisngly wide of his right hand post. But he’d hurt himself doing it. Rönnow would be replaced at half time by Lennart Grill. It would mean a huge test for his understudy.
Union hold on superbly, despite anxious moments
Grill looked pained having missed the ball when coming out to punch just into the half. He had got away with it though as the substitute Victor Boniface, also having only just come onto the pitch, shot wildly though a crowded box, but with half an empty goal to aim at.
But Grill would more than make up for it on the hour when he beat out Bart Nieuwkoops volley at his near post with strong wrists and nerves of steel. At the other end his opposite number made a fine stop from Becker when he slipped Ross Sykes.
Fischer made three further changes on the hour, with Kevin Behrens, Schäfer and Morton Thorsby coming on for Haraguchi, Haberer and Michel. Becker would flash a free header at Moris not long after.
USG continued their patient approach play, switching the ball from left to right, Adingra taking on Trimmel whenever he could, Boniface offering a new edge to their movements up front. But Schäfer was a scampering, twisting, whirling dervish, always looking to run, always asking for the ball in that netherworld between the halfway line and the box.
It was a superb game, still finely poised.
Michel and Thorsby combined to set off Becker, who wasn’t having his best day in front of goal, though he never once stopped striving, on the left. Dennis Eckert was booked for a swallow dive after a Knoche tackle. The play slowed a little, the whistle in use more and more. Trimmel shot a free kick over from distance, Becker shot another one wide after Rani Khedira’s shrugging aside of Oussama El Azzouzi. Behrens held the ball up time and again, waiting for his team-mates to catch up with him, to free themselves from their rigorously attended duties further back. And Schäfer scampered past Lynen like a puppy on the run from a butcher.
USG wouldn’t rest though as full time loomed. They’d already won the group, but they wanted something from this. They pushed on through the final five minutes, determination coursing through them. There were huge calls for a handball as the ball struck Knoche in the box, after Grill had punched a cross well clear this time. But Union held on, they held out.
And it was all summed up by the last couple of minutes as Diogo Leite threw himself in front of Loic Lapoussin’s shot and burst up the other end to try to give Behrens an option. He charged back to be there when Adingra shot, but Doekhi headed away, as he was there when Lapoussin headed towards goal again but Knoche, this time headed away.
They’d done it. Remarkably, brilliantly. And Union are still in the Europa league.