Union were taught the hardest of lessons about life in the Champions League when they lost 1-0 to Real Madrid through a 94th minute Jude Bellingham goal. They had held on at times, but they were brave and never overawed. Frederik Rönnow made a handful of superb saves, and the back line defended diligently and intelligently, and the whole team can still be rightly proud of how they held their own.
Real Madrid: Kepa – Alaba, Nacho (73. Garcia), Rüdiger, Vazquez – Tchouameni (66. Kroos) – Camavinga (66. Valverde), Bellingham, Modric (80. Díaz) – Rodrygo, Joselu
1. FC Union Berlin: Rönnow – Juranović, Doekhi, Bonucci (80. Jaeckel), Leite, Gosens – Král, Tousart (83. Kemlein) – Becker (80. Fofana), Behrens (66. Volland), Laïdouni (66. Aaronson)
Goals: Bellingham, 1-0 (90+4)
The hardest of lessons
Urs Fischer had spoken of the need to be courageous going into this game - that against a team like Real you can’t just sit back and wait for them to come at you - and he showed it. He left no doubt that he wanted to be positive to take the game to their honoured hosts. Sadly for him, courage sometimes isn’t quite enough, for even though his side showed it in spades, they were undone at the very last after the new Real Madrid wunderkind, Jude Bellingham, spun away with close to the final touch of a tense, battling game having scored his sixth goal in six for his new side.
Union started of course with a back five, the flying full-backs of Robin Gosens and Josip Juranovic either side of the superb Diogo Leite and Danilho Doekhi. And though it was hardly a surprise given the injury to a Robin Knoche who had borne as much responsibility as any for getting Union this far, it was a hell of a stage for Leonardo Bonucci to take his debut bow in the red of Union upon. He’d been here, before, of course. He’s played more Champions League games than many teams have on his own.
But then came the throw of the dice, Fischer doubling Lucas Tousart wit Alex Kral as the holding midfielders behind a front three of Aissa Laidouni, Kevin Behrens and the captain for the day, Sheraldo Becker leading the line.
Union start brightly; Real assert themselves
Maybe it was a sign, for Union's night started inauspiciously, with a yellow card for Tousart in the first minute as he harried Luka Modric on the Real right-hand side. But he didn’t seem shaken, he was involved again straight away as Union stroked the ball around to the whistles of the Madrid crowd. He was covering all the space in the middle of the diamond Madrid midfield.
Predictably enough, Real reacted, Rodrygo finding Joselu with a chipped ball into the box that Rönnow held cleanly and easily, all the better to get a first touch of the ball. Rönnow was commanding in the box all game long, claiming crosses from Alaba and Rodrygo early on. The excellent Leite rose to the occasion at the back with a series of well-timed tackles, anticipating Camavinga’s ball to an open Joselu with ease. He was covering gaps, and when he spotted others opening up he was pointing them out.
He stood over a free kick for offside after 20 minutes, and motioned with his hands to his team-mates to keep calm, to take their time.
Alongside him, of course was Bonucci, who had his first real involvement soon enough, hitting a delicious ball out to Gosens, inside right. There was the briefest moment of panic in the Real backline, but they recovered quickly. And they hit right back, Lukas lofting a dangerous ball from the left, tantalisingly close to dropping under Rönnow’s bar.
It had started at a hell of a pace. Both sides looking to land an early punch. Union were all in black; Real in white.
Laidouni tricked Lucas inside and out. Rodrygo countered but was covered by Leite. Juranovic crossed for Behrens, but his header went wide. Bellingham, who took time to grow into the game tried to dance past Kral at the edge of the box, then Bonucci hoicked Rodrygo’s ball away. Tousart got in front of Modric’s cross before it could cause any danger.
But Union were holding their own. Kepa had to come out and punch Becker’s cross from the right away, Laidouni tried to bicycle kick another from the edge of the box.
As the half wore on Union were seeing less and less of the ball, and when they got it their passes too often lacked the finest precision. Fischer clapped his hands together at the edge of his technical area, knowing that Real were ratcheting up the pressure, stepping further up the pitch, encroaching onwards, step by step.
There was a brief moment of chaos as Camavinga set himself up to shoot; Laidouni spotted the ball but his wild swing missed, and Kral did well to clear up. He was later clattered by Tchouameni, who went in studs up and was lucky to receive only a yellow card. Kral rolled in agony halfway between the centre circle and his box.
With four minutes to play he went down again, holding his toe in agony, his knee cocked, his head planted firmly upon it, but he returned to the pitch a minute later as Tchouameni tried an extravagant flick that went to no-one at all. The Czech midfielder presumably allowed himself the smallest of smiles at that.
And the more Real pushed, the more they dominated possession. Union held firm, refusing to bow down. Gosens' tackle on Lukas was a masterpiece, just as the Spaniard set himself to cross. As was Leite’s clearance from the same player with a minute to go, a case of simply being perfectly placed to cover the danger. As also was Bonucci’s covering of the silken Modric with the final act of the half, almost summing up Union’s first 45 minutes. They’d been steely and determined, focussed and above all, brave.
Union cling on, but Bellingham breaks their hearts
Union started brightly, a cleverly switched ball out wide from Kral came back across, working its way to Bonucci via the strong Behrens, holding off Rüdiger, who shot wide of the near post. Then Rodrygo almost found Bellingham darting into the box, but the ball was just behind the young Englishman. Rönnow saved superbly from Rodrygo again at the near post having ghosted past Leite with a neat header and shooting with his right. Rönnow stood firm though, beating the ball away with the strongest of hands.
Leite was more certain when he cleared Bellingham’s sharp little ball inside the box seven minutes in. Rönnow then saved from Joselu, diving to his right, as Real tried to turn the screw, and punched away the ensuing corner authoritatively.
Union were now clinging on at times, lacking the wherewithal to keep the ball when they had it, getting rushed by the constant pressure of the hosts. Becker succeeded, after Behrens had robbed Camavinga, but despite being bundled over by Rüdiger as he made for the corner flag, the linesman gave a foul the other way.
The Real fans behind the Union goal now did the Poznan, their backs to the pitch, bouncing, missing the increasingly influential Bellingham’s backheel to Modric. His dummy after 65 minutes was the act of a player now in full control of his game, Bonucci gladly toed it away into the ether.
Rönnow tipped Joselu’s goal bound downward header onto the post at full stretch as the ball reared up, superbly, after an hour, he held Tchouameni’s cross straight after. He had kept Union in the game.
And as Ancelotti showed his embarrassment of riches by bringing on Toni Kroos for Camavinga, and Valverde for Tchouameni, Fischer showed his own newfound strength in depth, bringing on Kevin Volland for the tireless, if luckless Behrens, and Brenden Aaronson for Laidouni. Aaronson immediately slipped Becker away down the right, his clipped ball to the back post went just over Volland’s head.
But Real were everywhere, pouring at Union from all angles. Modric shot over with 20 minutes to play when he time to pick his spot from just outside the box. Rodrygo, again, a constant menace, popping up inside and out, on the left and the right, stumbled when suddenly free with the ball dropping onto his toe at the back post. Bonucci scrambled Alaba's shot away and over the bar. Rüdiger headed over from inside the six-yard box.
But Union knew they only needed one chance. Aaronson broke, charging upfield having robbed Joselu, he tried to slip Volland through but Rüdiger was equal to it.
Doekhi, sliding in the box, stopped Joselu’s shot and the stadium roared as one for a penalty, but the referee was right there, immediately certain, his arms wide, his whistle remaining in his hand. Rüdiger tried some acrobatics of his own, connecting with the ball, but his effort went over.
Fischer brought on Fofana for Becker with ten minutes to play, hoping for a moment of magic that wasn’t to come.
Bellingham then hit wide first time towards the back post when he looked certain to finish and then Rönnow punched clear under infinite pressure from him. Bellingham gave him a mouthful, the best of signs for a keeper, he was getting under his skin, and Brahim Diaz threw his hands down in frustration as another chance went begging. Leite got in front of another ball played in to Alaba. Then again in front of Rodrygo. Rönnow snaffled another from him, spinning like a top in desperate search of the ball this time.
The Unioner kept on singing from up in the Gods, and still the clock ticked interminably down. There were five minutes added on. Then there were only four. Kral caught Bellingham, and Union retreated for the free kick. Aljoscha Kemlein, who has passed from Union's youths to this greatest of stadiums, got in front of Valverde’s shot. Kroos bent one towards the back post but Paul Jaeckel, who’d replaced the tiring Bonucci, headed clear.
Then there were two.
Just 120 seconds to hold on... until, ultimately, cruelly, Union’s hearts were broken. Kroos took a corner short, Valverde took a touch, took it on, drove into the crowd and the ball spilled away, leaving Bellingham to jab it over the line on the turn. The Unioner were stunned, it had been so close.
Rönnow was almost speechless after game. "When you are 0-0 after 90 minutes at the Bernabeu and lose to a goal like that..." Behrens added to that, speaking of his "mixed emotions." "Of course I'm extremely disappointed to lose after playing so well," he said. "But I'm also proud that we could hold Madrid so well away."
Fischer and his side can take much from this bitter lesson, this sudden hardship. "We are disappointed, of course," he said as the dust was still settling. "But when you're one minute short of taking a point from Madrid, that's understandable. In the end, I'm proud of the team's performance... After the break, we hardly got any respite, but luck was on our side several times. All in all, Real are probably the deserved winners."
And as this cavernous arena emptied immediately, as quickly as the theatre after a disappointing opening night, the Unioner started up singing again.
“Always look on the bright side of life”, they sung. To their eternal credit, they always do.