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Union's Hearts are Broken in Belgium

3-0 for Saint-Gilles

Thu, 16. March 2023
Union's Hearts are Broken in Belgium

Union were knocked out of the Europa League at the last 16 by a superb Royale Union Saint-Gilloise. It proved to be the end of a wild adventure.  

Royale Union Saint-Gilloise: Moris – Kandouss, Burgess, van der Heyden – Niuewkoop, Amani, Teuma (85. El Azzouzi), Lynen, Lapoussin – Adingra (67. Nilsson), Boniface (90.+2 Terho) 
1. FC Union Berlin: Rönnow – Juranović (75. Trimmel), Doekhi, Knoche, Leite, Roussillon (75. Gießelmann) – Laïdouni (56. Haberer) – Khedira, Thorsby (67. Leweling) – Becker, Michel (56. Siebatcheu)

Goals: 1:0 Teuma (18.), 2:0 Amani (63.), 3:0 Lapoussin (90+4) 

So much had been made of the similarities between Royale Union Saint-Gilloise and 1. FC Union Berlin that it was becoming hard to see where they actually stood in the build up to this game. From the obvious – the name, the forest settings, the recent competition in exile from their home stadia and the recent promotions and largely unexpected top-flight success – to the technical – the three or five at the back, depending on your inclination, the reliance on breaking at pace, and the four goals apiece, spread over three gruelling games.

Urs Fischer had said as much in his press conference in the  Lotto Park room decked out in the purple of Saint-Gilles’ rivals RSC Anderlecht.

That 1. FC Union Berlin have now played Royale Union Saint-Gilloise as many times in competitive matches as they have the famous Schalke 04 is somehow absurd. Tonight however, the Belgians blew much of that out of the water. Following the uncharacteristic, wild night in Berlin last week when they drew 3-3, this was the reckoning, a final waltz danced out between red and white and blue and yellow partners. The stadium, redolent of European nights from the 70’s and 80’s, graced by names like Paul Van Himst and Bob Paisley, was ready.

All they had to do was play.

Fischer had returned Jerome Rousillon to left back following his return to fitness, meaning Josip Juranovic – who had scored two in his three Europa League appearances up to now – was at right back. The back three, Diogo Leite, Robin Knoche and Danilho Doekhi was written in stone already. He started Aissa Laidouni and Morten Thorsby ahead of Rani Khedira in midfield and partnered Sven Michel up front with Sheraldo Becker. Kevin Behrens was sick; he would have to sit the whole thing out.

Saint-Gilloise dominant, open the scoring through Boniface

It was cagey at first. Khedira’s first touch was to drop his shoulder and twist away from Senne Lynen, Laidouni’s was to intercept a pass from Siebe van der Heyden, and Diogo Leite’s was to loft a dinked little ball to Thorsby who knocked it down for Michel to volley straight at Anthony Moris in the Saint-Gilles goal. Union looked confident, but it wouldn’t last long.

It took less than ten minutes for Saint-Gilles’ dangers to become ever more apparent. The superb, at times unplayable, Victor Boniface hit the post after Knoche stopped Simon Adingra’s shot from crossing the line with a backheel after Union had been cut apart in a manner all too familiar. It was Boniface who’d started the move, after only six minutes, on the left hand side. It looked certain to be a goal.

Union took a deep breath. But the trouble with history repeating itself, is that it’s often the bad things that recur.

Laidouni, who was a bright spot among the Union players throughout the first half, went straight up the other end and won a free kick on the edge of the box. Michel took it, surprising the wall, it fell to Juranovic who hit a vicious drive, but it flew wide.

Boniface was now established in the game, he was a menace. Nieuwkoop hit a wicked ball across the box, just millimetres away from his head as he hared into the box. Simon Adingra beat Leite again down the right and crossed. Their front three were changing at will, cutting in and out, finding each other with metronomic regularity, Teuma sitting deeper, pulling the strings, Boniface and Adingra running riot.

Then Saint-Gilles scored after 18 minutes as, following a mistake by Diogo Leite allowing Simon Adingra to pick up the ball and find the scheming number ten, Teddy Teuma. He took a touch and finished brutally past Freddie Rönnow who had no chance.

Juranovic had a free kick in a similar position to where he scored from last week. He opted to go the other way this time, hitting a superb shot towards the back post from the right, bending in, but he could not match last week’s heroics. Becker would come close with one in the second half as Union tried all their options, but their luck was out.

Amani played a one-two with Nieuwkoop, Jerome Rousillon chasing back and barging him over from behind to stop the prospects of another hole opening up after 25 minutes. Thorsby caught Teuma just after. Laidouni timed his tackle from behind on Adingra perfectly.

Lazare Amani hit a speculative cross / shot that looked for the briefest of moments looked like it might sail over Rönnow’s head and drop in. It had all come from Boniface, centrally this time, causing havoc, shrugging off both Knoche and Thorsby’s attentions before laying it off and darting forwards again.

Maybe it was a consequence of the schedule, or of the expectations. Fischer said after the game, his voice cracked and broken, that Union had made too many mistakes, but Saint Gilles were also very good, and were deservedly in the lead. They pushed and pulled Union to pieces with the ball, and without it, they were superbly organised and proved impossible to break down.

The hosts double their lead, adding a final touch in time added on.

The second half started with Laidouni getting a yellow for a lunge on Teuma and a brief pause as Lapoussin caught Juranovic. Union were taking the game to their hosts, pushing ever higher up the pitch, trying to get crosses into the box, but the hosts threatened to break immediately following the cleared free kick. It took the pace of Becker to chase down Boniface.

Union pushed up again as the Unioner, as magnificent as ever, sung from the rooftop position they had behind the goal Union were now attacking. They never stopped roaring their team on. 

But no matter their efforts things weren't coming off. Juranovic tried to find Doekhi with a smart backheel, but it went out of play. Becker charged down the inside right, hitting a short, low ball towards Michel in the box but it was just too high.

Fischer brought on Jordan Siebatcheu and Janik Haberer with only ten minutes of the half gone, replacing Michel and Laidouni. Haberer got a yellow card within minutes as he caught Teuma. He'd go on to rue it.

Saint-Gilles made it two shortly after the hour as Boniface once again danced into the box, one, two, three step-overs, driving at a backpedalling Doekhi. He chipped the ball to Amani who smashed it home from inside the 18 yard box.

Becker hit a free kick wide of the near post as Jamie Leweling prepared to come on for Morten Thorsby, a final throw of the dice by Fischer to try to turn the game with 25 minutes to go. But Saint-Gilles were now pinging the ball between them to the crowd’s Ole’s and the Unioner’s cries for them to keep on fighting. And Boniface dug further into his box of tricks to throw Juranovic with the sweetest of drops of the shoulder you’re ever likely to see.

Union just couldn’t get themselves back into the game.

Ismael Kandouss flicked a header just wide of the back post. Then a flash, a brief chance. Leweling won a corner on the left, from which the captain, Christopher Trimmel – on for Juranovic – found the head of Leite but his attempt went agonisingly over the bar.

Frederik Rönnow saved at the feet of Gustaf Nilssson with an outstretched leg as Teuma set him free with only the keeper to beat. Things would then get worse as Haberer was shown a red card after getting entangled with Lynen well into the Saint-Gilles half with ten minutes to play. Fischer was off his bench, raging as Haberer trudged off, staring at the ground all the way, the loneliest man in the stadium. Trimmel said later that it was then that the game was really up. 

The hosts wanted more. Becker ran 30 yards to clear off the line as Boniface caught Rönnow out of his box and unable to get to the ball first. It wasn’t enough. Amani then thought he’d made it three a few minutes later, the gaps in Union’s back line now gaping, but his finish was ruled out late for offside, even after the scoreboard had shown his name. Loic Lapoussin would not be so unlucky as he smashed home from the edge of the box in time added on.

Both the Union players' and their fans' hearts had been broken, Royale Union Saint-Gilloise had proved a step too far at the fourth time of asking. Despite all those similarities. But the fans stayed long after the stadium had emptied, their magnificent support never wavering. They sung of Urs Fischer, just as they sung a bittersweet “Always look on the bright side of life”.

For they know how far this club has come, and how far they can still go. Fischer said that, though bitterly disappointed, he knew they could all be proud of the showing Union had made in their first run at the Europa League.

Their European adventure may have come to an end here in Anderlecht, but it is also the start of a whole new chapter.