1. FC Union Berlin took a historic point from their third ever Champions League fixture, holding SSC Napoli to a 1-1 draw in the Stadio Diego Armando Maradona. Having gone a goal down to Matteo Politano's deflected first half cross, David Datro Fofana capped a fine team performance with his 52nd minute equaliser.
SSC Neapel: Meret – Rui (77. Oliviera), Natan, Rrahmani, Di Lorenzo – Zielinski (90. Cajuste), Lobotka (77. Simeone), Anguissa – Kvaratskhelia, Raspadori, Politano (87. Lindström)
1. FC Union Berlin: Rönnow – Juranović (64. Trimmel), Jaeckel, Bonucci, Leite, Roussillon (79. Aaronson) – Haberer (79. Gosens), Khedira (70. Tousart), Laïdouni (70. Král) – Becker, Fofana
Goals: 1:0 (39. Politano), 1:1 (52. Fofana)
Urs Fischer wrung in the changes for this historic Champions League game, though, as ever, his line-up started with Frederik Rönnow in goal. He was stationed behind a back three of Diogo Leite, Leonardo Bonucci – who knows this place better than most – and Paul Jaeckel, with Robin Knoche dropping to the bench. They were flanked by Josip Juranovic, back after a five-game lay-off, and Jerome Roussillon, starting his first game since the arrival of Robin Gosens, at left-back.
Rani Khedira, of course, was back at the base of midfield, his suspension counting only for the Bundesliga, while Janik Haberer and Aissa Laidouni provided the momentum and back-up ahead of him.
Up front was the twin pronged, and devastatingly fast, attack of David Datro Fofana and Sheraldo Becker.
Napoli have a goal disallowed, then take the lead
The huge stadium shook before kick off, the lights killed for the Champions League anthem, the couple of thousand Union fans in their corner daring valiantly to overpower the ominous roar of the home support. They had hoped, of course, that Union could wrest a result out of this crucial fixture, and breathe life back into this ill-fated last couple of months, but it's hard to come back when everything seems to be going against you.
The first half wouldn't have assured them that the football Gods were on their side on Wednesday evening either. But this side are made of strong stuff. They played superbly.
Yet, in contrast to the last time the sides met, Napoli looked confident from the off. Piotr Zielinski trying to set the constantly dangerous Kvicha Kvaratskhelia away down the inside right. Khedira dodged around Stranislav Lobotska, while Juranovic jostled with Kvaratskhelia, his legs a blur, daring each other to make the first move. Their battle down Union’s left was compelling drama, devastatingly fast football played on a knife edge.
But it was actually Union who would have the first real shot on goal of the half, as Becker drilled one at the near post when slipped in by Haberer after only three minutes, but Alex Meret saved his shot with the minimum of fuss. Union needed to be wary. Their hosts were just getting into things.
Amir Rrahmani headed wide when jumping in the box under pressure from the Union defenders, packed into the box, as Napoli had most of the ball. Giovanni Di Lorenzo probed, cutting inside from the right, while Stanislav Lobotka schemed in the middle.
Union looked to hit them back on the break, Leite hitting a searching ball for Roussillon to run onto down the left that he’d telegraphed a week in advance. Fofana then spun past Lobotka like he’d been dropped onto on a jukebox.
Huge explosions roared out from the end Union were attacking - as they would throughout the half- but the game itself actually settled down for Union. Napoli would be in the ascendancy soon enough though.
It took a superb stop from Rönnow to stop a Piotr Zielinski shot after quarter of an hour, hit hard at his near post, his reflexes tested, but true as ever. Jaeckel then timed his lunge perfectly to stop Giacomo Raspadori from shooting, as it took the combined strength of Leite and Jaeckel to barge Andre-Frank Zambo Aguissa off the ball five minutes later as he marauded into the box.
After 25 minutes, Union were holding on, repelling attacks from all sides. Haberer and the tireless, scheming, superb Laidouni putting out fires. Natan hit the post with a header, the ball dropping onto the upright as if in geological time. Then Roussillon was back just in time to flick a Raspadori shot over the bar that seemed goal bound.
And when Union tried to counter, Becker bounced off Natan like he wasn’t even there; Fofana shot over following another superb, jinking run through the middle.
Then, after half an hour, Union thought the sky had fallen in. A goal looked like it had been coming.
Mario Rui picked up the ball on the left, clipping a cross to a rising Di Lorenzo at the back post. His header found Zambo Anguissa, who stooped to head past a flailing Rönnow, but Roussillon had been fouled in the build-up. Though the referee gave it initially, surrounded by livid Union players protesting en-masse, it was chalked off after a lengthy video review.
The Unioner could breathe again.
So it was a curiously bitter twist of Union’s ill fate that Napoli’s opener owed more to a stroke of great fortune than to their elegant build up play this time. Politano picked up the ball on the inside left, he shaped to cross across the goalmouth, but the ball took a huge deflection off Leite’s leg as he lunged, and the ball passed a Rönnow who had no chance, at his near post.
Laidouni wasn’t going to give up. None of them would. He fought his way past Raspadori on the left, leaving the striker in a heap. Fofana then beat Di Lorenzo for pace, winning a corner. It found its way to Laidouni whose blistering drive got booted away from the crowd of Napoli defenders on the edge of the box.
Union strived to get back into things. Becker couldn’t get his foot around the ball to cross it from the byline. Leite did well to beat Politano off the ball in his own box. The dogged Juranovic hit another wicked corner into the box.
Roussillon turned, Haberer slipped, and Khedira won a free kick on the edge of the box as he tried to squeeze a shot off in the chaos. The whistles rang out as time added on had long passed.
But Union had a free kick, the final action of the half, a half chance. Juranovic hit it wonderfully, arcing across goal, leaving Meret for dead, but the ball cannoned back off the right-hand post.
Once again they were left rueing their luck.
Union step up, Fofana scores
If anyone summed up Union’s performance it was Laidouni. He did brilliantly holding off Politino and Zambo-Anguissa, under pressure all the time, but the ball always under his control, just as he stood firm to DiLorenzo’s drive after Politano’s air kick.
Napoli looked strong again, the masters of the ball, but they also failed to heed their warnings, underestimating the drive of that attacking pair.
After 52 minutes, suddenly Becker was away, Fofana finding him via a long ball into his path from Roussillon as he left his man behind. Becker shot first time with his right, bent towards the back post from where Meret palmed it away, diving to his left. But the ball only went as far as Fofana, rushing in, finishing coolly, the weight of all that misfortune falling away off his shoulders as he roared away in glorious celebration.
Fischer praised the Ivorian striker afterwards, saying that he'd taken his recent suspension on the chin and come back, determined to put it behind him. "He's young," he said, understandingly. Everyone makes mistakes. It's how you react that counts, and Fofana had done so emphatically.
The game exploded into life after that. Napoli hit back. Di Lorenzo saw a header claimed by Rönnow; Becker’s effort was deflected wide after Roussillon’s cross.
Laidouni did well again to shepherd the ball away from DiLorenzo in Union’s box. The Napoli skipper was causing no end of problems, but Union were holding their own as the game went into the final half an hour, their spirits buoyed by the goal, their refusal to succumb again unimpeachable. Kvaratskhelia beat both Leite and Jaeckel, but overhit his cross to Zambo-Anguissa who couldn’t control his volley.
Leite did well to rob Politano, and it was all Jaeckel could do to hold him back as he approached the box moments later, conceding a free kick, 25 yards out that Raspadori could only hit it into the wall.
Trimmel drew a good stop from Meret after the next of Becker’s endless lightning breaks down the left. He and Fofana had their backs up, they were close to unplayable at times as the half wore on and the game darted from end to end, and Union retreated, constantly looking for that twin attack whenever they could spring the trap.
And when they had them, the hosts wasted their chances. Kvaratskhelia opted to cross first time, lobbing the ball into Rönnow’s hands, when he seemed to be free. The Dane then held DiLorenzo’s wicked little ball as it bent across his body from the right.
Fischer made changes, Laidouni replaced by Lucas Tousart, Khedira by Alex Kral, Christopher Trimmel, for Juranovic, Brenden Aaronson for Haberer and Robin Gosens for Roussillon.
Napoli poured it on in the final ten minutes, but to no avail. Giovanni Simeone headed wide from a corner. Jaeckel launched himself at Di Lorenzo’s shot in the box. Simeone then flashed a diving header over the bar. Trimmel somehow chased down Kvaratskhelia, giving all he had.
With seven minutes added on Fofana danced into the box, holding the ball up before cutting it back for Tousart whose drive flew inches wide.
Then the player the Unioner feared the most, Kvaratskhelia - the man named for the man the stadium is named for - turned on a volley. Time stood still for the Unioner, but he put it too close to the keeper. Rönnow saved well.
Fischer, after the final whistle could only praise his players, his voice a rasp, a smile back on his face. It was more than deserved, and they'd finally put an end to the run of losses that was weighing them down. "What can I say?" he asked. He said his team had always been ready to fight their way back, they never let their heads drop.
"The team were tireless today and have finally been rewarded for a great performance. I'm delighted for the lads and for the whole club."
The Union players were dead on their feet by the end - Fofana was floored and remained so for an age as play carried on at the other end of the pitch - but they saw the terrifying final minutes out, the images of the last second winners from Real Madrid and Braga plaguing the thoughts of all their fans all the while.
They had broken their curse at last, and it was a point that tasted as fine as any win you’ll ever see.