BERLIN — Union Berlin has never won a Champions League game. To have any hope of extending its participation in European competition this season, it needs to beat 14-time European champion Real Madrid on Tuesday.
A win over Madrid — which is already assured of topping Group C — coupled with a loss for Braga at Napoli in the other group game would lift Union above the Portuguese side into third place in the group and secure the consolation prize of a place in the Europa League.
There’s no consolation for finishing bottom of the group, where Union finds itself with just two points after failing to beat 10-man Braga in its previous game.
That 1-1 draw in new Union coach Nenad Bjelica’s debut stretched the German team’s winless streak to 16 games across all competitions, but Union finally ended that confidence-shattering run on Saturday in the Bundesliga against Borussia Mönchengladbach by 3-1.
Madrid, meanwhile, has won every game in the competition so far and is looking to complete a perfect group stage for the third time after 2011 and 2014.
“We shouldn’t praise Real Madrid too much. Everyone knows what they mean in world soccer,” Bjelica said.
The contrast between the clubs could hardly be greater. Madrid, the tradition-steeped Spanish behemoth, has won the European Cup a record 14 times, while Union was promoted to the Bundesliga for the first time only in 2019 and is playing for the first time in the Champions League after an improbable fourth-place finish in Germany last season.
Many Union fans expected the team’s success to continue this season, but the arrival of well-known names such as Leonardo Bonucci, Robin Gosens and Kevin Volland in the offseason did not have the desired effect as Union’s defensive stability crumbled and the team lost its efficiency in attack.
Coach Urs Fischer, who led the team to promotion in 2019, paid the price and was replaced by Bjelica.
Volland opened the scoring against Gladbach with a penalty — arguably the only way the home team was going to score — before little-known players Benedict Hollerbach and Mikkel Kaufmann grabbed their first Bundesliga goals to end Union’s winless run. Neither Hollerbach nor Kaufmann was registered for the Champions League, however.
“It is how it is, we have to accept it. We have to concentrate on the players that are there,” Bjelica said.
Madrid won its previous five games across all competitions until Real Betis fought back to draw 1-1 on Saturday in La Liga.
Union will take some encouragement from its own performance in the 1-0 loss to Madrid at the Santiago Bernabéu in September. Jude Bellingham scored Madrid’s winner only in the fourth minute of injury time. Unfortunately for Union, he’ll likely be playing again.
Madrid coach Carlo Ancelotti also rejected the notion his team might take it easy with top spot in the group already assured.
“We've always said this is a special competition and we need to respect it with a good game," Ancelotti said. "Our professionalism is also at stake, so I think we'll approach it with the idea of playing a good game and winning it.”
Heavy rainfall provided a cold welcome for Madrid's final training session in Berlin's Olympiastadion, which is traditionally the home of Union's city rival Hertha Berlin.
Union's Stadion An der Alten Försterei holds only 22,000 supporters and the club wanted to give as many as possible the chance to see its debut Champions League campaign. Tickets for Madrid's visit were sold out long in advance.