1. FC Union Berlin and SC Braga played out a hard fought 1-1 draw in torrential Portuguese rain in their penultimate Champions League group stage fixture on Wednesday evening. Robin Gosens opened the scoring for Union with an emphatic finish, following Sikou Niakate’s first half red card, but Alvaro Djalo equalised early in the second half for the hosts.
Sporting Braga: Matheus – Cristian Borja, Niakaté, José Fonte, Victor Gómez (81. Josafat Mendes) – Zalazar (81. André Horta), João Moutinho – Vitor Carvalho (35. Saatci), Ricardo Horta, Álvaro Djaló (81. Roger) – Banza (68. Ruiz)
1. FC Union Berlin: Rönnow – Roussillon, Diogo Leite, Knoche, Juranović – Tousart (61. Haberer), Khedira (78. Aaronson), Laïdouni (78. Král) – Gosens, Behrens (61. Fofana), Volland
Goals: 0-1 Gosens (42.), 1-1 Álvaro Djaló (51.)
Nenad Bjelica had said that there was only so much he could change in the two days he had at 1. FC Union Berlin, and that he wouldn’t be pulling up any trees when it came to the team. But he had also spoken of the need for his players to do what he asks, of the discipline he would demand, and when he talked of his being adaptable to their needs, he also implied that they would have to adapt to his just as well.
Yet still it was with no little surprise that he would make such a structural change to the tried and tested starting eleven ahead of his first game in charge of Union. Okay, Frederik Rönnow remained in goal, but he was behind a back four starting for one of the first times, really, since Urs Fischer’s first season in the Bundesliga (last month’s cup-tie against Stuttgart aside). Jerome Roussillon was at left-back, Josip Juranovic, opposite on the right, with Diogo Leite and Robin Knoche in the middle.
He said after the game that the idea was to put Braga under more pressure, whilst allowing for defensive stability and danger from crosses from the wings.
His midfield was a three made of Rani Khedira, behind Aissa Laidouni and a returning Lucas Tousart; themselves behind a three of Kevin Behrens, Kevin Volland – fresh from his best game in an Union shirt on Saturday, and the biggest surprise of the day, Robin Gosens, allowed to set his flights of attacking fancy free on the left.
Braga start strongest on a soggy pitch. Niakate sees red, Gosens gives Union the lead
The pitch was a bog after a day of heavy rain. It cut up under tackles, was heavy under foot, as Ricardo Horta found out immediately, the ball getting stuck under his feet as Braga tried to start the game quickly. But if that hurt, it was nothing compared to the tester he got from Robin Knoche a moment later, for which he received a possibly harsh, early yellow card.
But this was symbolic to how the game would go in its earliest phases. Cristian Borja left his studs in on Roussillon soon after that, while Tousart won the ball off Rodrigo Zalazar at waist height; it was hardly the most elegant of spectacles as the game stuttered into life. But Laidouni found Volland as Union suddenly broke up the middle after almost ten minutes, what the 1,500 travelling Unioner, loud in their sector up in the roof of this spectacular stadium, hoped was a sign of things to come.
Braga were seeing more of the ball, but they struggled to make it sing in the conditions, either passes were overhit, or they were blocked by the boot or body of a black clad Unioner. Tousart covered acres; Knoche robbed Horta; Juranovic got in the way of Carvalho; Rönnow saved superbly and bravely at the feet of the dangerous Simon Banza as he looked to squeeze off a shot after a neat bit of work on the edge of Union’s six-yard box. Khedira and Banza crashed together audibly inside Union’s half, immovable, obstinate objects, both of them.
When Laidouni and Alvaro Djalo clashed heads, Roussillon and Khedira (having checked on their team-mate first, of course) were quick to tell the physio’s they weren’t needed at all as they started their long run onto the pitch, contrary to whatever the referee had said. They waved them away dramatically. It had all been a bit too stop-start, and within a moment Laidouni proved their point, spinning past his opposite number with a turn as elegant as anything seen on the pitch thus far. It wouldn’t have looked out of place in the Bolshoi.
But Braga aren’t Portugal’s highest scoring side for nothing, they always engendered the ability to drag themselves out of the literal mire. Djalo headed wide, unchallenged, from the simplest of crosses in from the right after almost half an hour when he should have scored.
He held his head in his hands, he only had to guide the ball inside the back post and Rönnow would have been well beaten.
This wouldn’t account for their luck though. Suddenly, as if out of nowhere, they were down to ten men when only minutes later Sikou Niakate was late into a challenge on Kevin Behrens, dragging his studs down the back of the Union striker’s ankle horribly. Behrens was going nowhere really, and it didn’t look malicious, just a bit reckless, and bloody painful. The referee, Clement Turpin, initially showed him a yellow card but changed his mind after a video review.
Union stepped up. Having lost here in the Europa League last year as the better side, maybe this was to be their day after all. Volland headed wide from Gosens’ left footed cross, before slipping Tousart into the box with a delicious through ball, the Frenchman, however, getting a yellow card for a dive inside the box.
They would take the lead in emphatic fashion. Roussillon saw a huge gap ahead of him, charging up the suddenly open left wing in time to receive the most perfect of passes from Khedira. He played the ball inside for Gosens who hammered past a helpless Matheus in Braga’s goal with his left to make it 1-0 for Union, and, for the time being at least, justifying the boss’s decision to play the pair of them. His gamble had paid off handsomely.
Braga weren’t to just drop to their knees at that though. It took a superb, reflex stop from Rönnow from Jose Fonte, then Behrens got in the way of Djalo’s follow up before Leite somehow cleared in a moment of chaos and panic in the Union box to hold back the hosts. There were frantic calls for a penalty for handball, and a yellow card for a vociferous protest in there for good measure.
Having seemed so assured, they left for the break with the feeling that somehow, they had held on by the skin of their teeth.
Djalo equalises, both sides punch each other out
Union started as strongly as the rain, Volland and Behrens playing the ball between them up the centre, only being held back by the sluggishness of the ball. But it was at the other end that the next goal would come.
Union should know not to underestimate this Braga side, having lost to them despite leading 2-0 only a few weeks ago, and Djalo found himself alone in front of goal following Knoche’s mistake and Horta’s clever ball. he looked around, judging the space around him, and blasted the ball at Rönnow. The keeper got a touch as it flew over his head, but only as a consolation, and it was little of that. He was beaten for power. Suddenly it was 1-1, and Union, despite their advantage, were fighting a rearguard action once again.
Gosens said later that this is just a consequence of thevrun they've been on. "In the situation we find ourselves in, we are not in a position to simply put away such resistance,"
Union composed themselves. Rousillon cut in from the left, and Laidouni tried to charge past three into the box. They knew the man advantage would tell later on, but they were now looking unlike the side with a man up. Braga were brave, determined and skilful as the conditions worsened. It took an instinctive Leite stop from Djalo to keep the scores level after an hour, Ricardo Horta blazed wide of Rönnow’s left-hand upright a second later after Juranovic’s undercooked first touch. Banza shot over with his left after 63 minutes.
Juranovic then punched the sodden ground in anger with 20 minutes to play, certain he’d been fouled by Cristian Borja as he raced into the Braga penalty area, but the referee waved his entreaties away. Roussillon continued to find space on the left though, and as the half wound down Union started to enjoy a bit more of the ball. Khedira and Laidouni stroked it across the middle, until they were both replaced by Bjelica at the same time with Alex Kral and Brenden Aaronson coming on with ten minutes left to play.
This would lead to Union’s best chances of the half, as the excellent Roussillon carved open a superb cross for David Datro Fofana – on for Behrens –from the left again, but his header went wide of Matheus’s goal. Gosens headed over with four minutes of normal time to play as Union tried to assert themselves again. Fofana was then inches away from sliding into a near perfect Roussillon ball from the left that cut the bedraggled Braga defence in two.
But it wasn’t to be. Bjelica said that he had been happy with his side, particularly in the first half, and Aissa Laidouni was keen to focus on the good bits from their performance, saying "We will stay positive and keep working hard."
By the end, both sides had punched themselves out, and they dragged themselves off, soaked to the skin, their legs stinging, cramping from the strain. But, despite a certain disappointment, Union had left themselves with the chance of third place in the group still, and after a bruising night like this, that hope will light their way home to Berlin and the, decisive, coming visit of Real Madrid in this tournament like a beacon.