Slavia Prague scored two late goals to take all three points against 1. FC Union Berlin in the opening Group E match of the UEFA Europa Conference League.
With Union a man down after Paul Jaeckel's dismissal in the 40th minute and a goal down, Urs Fischer's team showed resilience to bounce back and level. Kevin Behrens came off the bench to score the decisive equaliser for the Köpenick club, cancelling out the opener from Alexander Bah. But the ten players were beaten at the death by two goals for the Czech champions: a goal from Jan Kuchta and one from Ivan Schranz.
Slavia: Mandous; Bah, Ousou, Kacharaba (Takacs 53), Dorley; Traore, Ekapl, Masopust, Sevcik, Lingr (Stanciu 68); Teci (Kuchta 53)
: Luthe; Trimmel, Jaeckel, Friedrich, Knoche, Puchacz (Ryerson 86); Khedira (Prömel 58), Öztunali (Becker 58), Haraguchi; Awoniyi (Voglsammer 58), Kruse (Behrens 58)
With around 4,000 fans in attendance, Union were fully backed for Thursday’s opening Group E encounter at Czech champions Slavia Prague. Urs Fischer’s selection featured a return for Tymoteusz Puchacz in place of Niko Gießelmann while Paul Jaeckel came in for Timo Baumgartl in the three-man defensive group. Genki Haraguchi was substituted on after 22 minutes against Augsburg on Saturday, but was handed the starting berth with Kevin Möhwald missing through injury. Germany’s representatives in the inaugural UEFA Europa Conference League started on the front foot and could have been ahead after three minutes. A bouncing ball in the penalty box was missed by three Union players before Kruse slammed the ball wide of the target. Slavia’s championship victory meant they started the campaign in the UEFA Champions League, but defeats to Ferencvaros saw them tumble into the UEFA Europa League. A narrow loss to Legia Warsaw brings Slavia into UEFA’s new competition for European football, but it’s clear the Czechs have quality and experience through their squad. Both Lukas Masopust and Petr Sevcik could have given the home fans something to celebrate early on. Portuguese referee Fabio Verissimo was card happy in the opening stages, booking Jaeckel in the third minute and controversially Taiwo Awoniyi. The spice in the match suited the home side who took the lead after 19 minutes. A corner kick for the Czech side was cleared only as far as Alexander Bah who sweeped the ball past Andreas Luthe from the edge of the area. Slavia continued to push Union back as Stanislav Taci shot wide on 25 minutes. On 33 minutes, Urs Fischer’s team created a really good opportunity to score – Robin Knoche’s searching ball found Max Kruse, with the Union number 10 cutting back for Awoniyi but the Nigerian striker was an inch away from turning the ball home. Referee Verissimo went to his pocket again on 40 minutes and showed Jaeckel a second booking to cut Union’s numbers down to 10.
The second 45 minutes in wet conditions were always going to put extra load on Union's players. Ibrahim Traore could have rubbed salt into the wounds within the first minute of the half. Verissimo had no choice but to make an abrupt stoppage to the game following a knock to Taras Karabacha. The Slavia central defender was down for several minutes and stretchered off having suffered a head collision. Union gathered themselves after the restart and took control. Rani Khedira added to his midfield contribution by getting into the opposition box on 54 minutes but the strike didn’t threaten Slavia despite Union’s improving performance. Union thought they had equalised on 57 minutes when Kruse drew the ball back for Awoniyi but the assistant referee flagged for offside. The resulting stoppage in play saw Union turn to the bench with some decisive action: four changes to power the team for the last 20 minutes. Fischer introduced Kevin Behrens, Andreas Voglsammer, Grischa Prömel and Sheraldo Becker in place of Kruse, Awoniyi, Öztunali and Rani Khedira. On 68 minutes, with the fans in excellent voice, Union’s resolve prevailed. Volgsammer linked with Becker whose pace won him a yard off Oscar Dorley, the cross giving Behrens the simple task of scoring Union’s first of the group stages. A second half performance full of character and guts wouldn't pay off in the end as the 10 players in Union's black shirt dealt with a combination of fatigue and bad luck. Slavia's second goal on 84 minutes was a long-range strike from Nicolai Stanciu, which deflected incredibly into the path of Jan Kuchta who finished from about seven yards out. The third, two minutes later, came from an awkward strike from Ivan Schranz which caught Andreas Luthe out in difficult conditions. The two decisive goals rounded off a difficult night for Union with a lot of bad luck going against the Bundesliga side in 90 minutes.