Union Berlin's maiden UEFA Champions League participation could not have delivered a more enticing section with the tournament kings Real Madrid set to host the Bundesliga side in Group C's opening round of games.
bundesliga.com offers five reasons the men in red can upset the odds and leave the Spanish capital on opening night with three big points in the bag.
1. Competition shocks
Let's face it, the Champions League has been littered with surprising results down through the years and expect this season to deliver its fair share of tournament shocks. From Brondby's 2-1 win against Bundesliga giants Bayern Munich back in 1998/99 to Celtic's stunning victory over Barcelona in 2012, the list of smaller teams taking big-named Champions League scalps is a long one. Sure, Real Madrid are the record European Cup champions, boasting a haul of 14 titles while this season represents their 27th consecutive appearance in the group stages, but does that not make tournament debutants Union the slipperiest of possible banana skins for Carlo Ancelotti's side?
Watch: the ultra-efficient Union Berlin
Few would have expected 2022/23's defending European champions to lose out at RB Leipzig last season while Schalke's 4-3 win against the Spanish giants in the 2014/15 Round of 16, second leg is still reminisced over in the pubs of Gelsenkirchen. With Urs Fischer's Matchday 1 visitors to the Santiago Bernabeu continuing to surprise on the domestic front following their dizzying rise to the top of the game and highest-ever Bundesliga finish last season, write off the Irons in Madrid at your peril.
2. Unknown quantity
Union may now boast household names such as Leonardo Bonucci - who faced Los Blancos five times as a Juventus player - and Kevin Volland on their books, but they will arrive in the Spanish capital somewhat under the radar in terms of more widely known personnel. Bundesliga fans are, of course, all too familiar with the impact penetrating wide men Robin Gosens and Josip Juranovic can make or that Kevin Behrens is in the form of his life up front, but will Champions League behemoths Real Madrid pay much heed prior to welcoming Die Eisernen?
No nonsense, playmaking midfielder Aissa Laidouni has enjoyed a busy start to this Bundesliga season too, and the Tunisia international could be in for a big night in the Champions Lague opener as Union look to silence the passionate home fans inside their newly developed stadium.
3. New signings thriving
The capital club found themselves busy during the recent transfer window and with several new signings arriving, it had been thought Union would take time to hit their stride. Nothing of the sort. Fischer had his charges purring from Matchday 1, when loanees Alex Kral, USMNT international Brenden Aaronson and David Datro Fofana were thrown straight into the mix. With Behrens netting a hat-trick in a 4-1 win against Mainz and substitute Volland - signed from Monaco - assisting his team's fourth goal of the day, Union were back with a bang.
Indeed, they were leading the division charge when they followed that impressive triumph with victory in Darmstadt by the same scoreline. Despite being reduced to 10 men, the visitors looked slick and snazzy at the Stadion am Böllenfalltor, where another new arrival, Germany international Gosens, scored twice in his first Bundesliga start. A slip-up against Leipzig on Matchday 3 was assuaged by the appearance of Bonucci on the bench, the Italian UEFA Euro 2020 winner signed to Union fans' delight on transfer deadline day. Gosens also found the back of net away at Wolfsburg during Matchday 4 and, while Union ultimately fell to a 2-1 defeat in that encounter, the new boys have what it takes to cause Real plenty of problems.
Watch: Gosens and Union Berllin - a match made in heaven
4. Bellingham watch
Ex-Borussia Dortmund favourite Jude Bellingham is the man at the centre of everything Real Madrid do these days, the 20-year-old scoring five goals and delivering one assist in his five La Liga games to date. Yet Union have plenty of information to hand on the England international having faced him six times, and gotten the better of the Birmingham-born superstar twice. That knowledge could prove invaluable to the Irons as they look to shut down Real's exceptional midfield dynamo.
On Bundesliga Matchday 10 last term, coach Fischer utilised a diamond midfield formation in front of a back five that served to reap rewards against Bellingham and his former BVB teammates, Union running out 2-0 winners on that October evening. Bellingham also experienced defeat in his first-ever game against Die Eisernen, last term's Bundesliga Player of the Season part of a Black-and-Yellow's side that went down 2-1 in 2020. If Union can once again martial Madrid's on-song midfielder at the Santiago Bernabeu on their Champions League bow, they will have won half the battle.
5. Iron Union
"Real Madrid - it's the greatest team in the world [and] playing there is also a dream come true for this coach," Union's tactician said after taking in the draw for this season's Champions League, which saw his side also draw Italian champions Napoli and Braga of Portugal in Group C. “It was really special to watch the draw together,” the 57-year-old added. And it's that togetherness that has defined Union under their Swiss coach, who has taken the team from Köpenick from the second tier of German football to the Champions League in only five seasons.
"It's surreal," Fischer said on the final day of last term when Union secured their maiden voyage to the Champions League. Yet the coaching staff, players and fans of the Irons have not lost any of that focus or unity that have gotten them where they are today, and they will look to exactly those attributes as they seek to add Union's name to the list of teams who have produced the greatest of Champions League shocks.
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