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Bundesliga leaders Union aim to bring Berlin cool to Europe

Cult club Union Berlin have enchanted German football on their fairytale rise all the way to the top of the Bundesliga, and this season they are hoping to carry their domestic form onto the European stage.

Union head to Portugal to play Braga in their second group game in this season’s Europa League on Thursday, having lost at home to Union Saint-Gilloise last week.

“The only thing that matters on Thursday is that we get our first points on the board. We want to show our league face,” Union goalkeeper Lennart Grill told German media on Tuesday.

The 1-0 loss to their Belgian opponents is the only blemish on a brilliant start to the campaign for Union, who reached new heights last weekend as they stormed to the top of the Bundesliga for the first time in their history. 

The popular minnows from East Berlin are full of confidence after notching up four wins from their opening six games in Germany’s top flight. 

Union are on the Bundesliga’s longest unbeaten run, having not lost in 13 games, despite having faced Bayern Munich, RB Leipzig (twice) and cross-town rivals Hertha Berlin (twice) during that spell.

“I’m particularly happy about the 14 points, which will help us, because there will certainly be phases in which we are not doing well,” said coach Urs Fischer. 

“It’s a nice moment to remember”, the notoriously stoic Swiss said of his side’s view from the top. 

‘Cool’ Union

Union Berlin’s outsider appeal existed a long time before their promotion to the Bundesliga in 2019, but in recent weeks the club have won the support of German football’s mainstream.

After his side was held to a 1-1 draw away at Union on matchday four, Bayern coach Julian Nagelsmann was full of praise for Union. 

“The fans are cool, the stadium is cool, the club is cool, Urs is cool,” he said. 

Even former Bayern president Uli Hoeness served up one of his famous backhanded compliments — a sure sign Union have captured German football’s attention. 

“(They are) very successful, very likeable, I like it,” he said.

“They do a great job, but that’s a different concept. You can’t win the Champions League with that.”

Whether Union will ever be able to win the Champions League remains to be seen, but the fact the club could even take part shows how far things have come in the eastern Berlin borough of Koepenick. 

Greatest asset

Despite their promotion ahead of the 2019-20 season, most observers expected Union to quickly fall back to the second division, particularly after the Covid-19 pandemic robbed them of their greatest asset — fans at the Stadion an der Alten Foersterei, their 22,000-capacity home ground. 

However, they finished an impressive 11th — equal on points with Hertha — in their first top-flight season, before seventh and fifth-placed finishes in their next two campaigns secured them European football. 

They failed to make it beyond the group stage of last season’s Europa Conference League before losing to Union Saint-Gilloise last week, although that was just their fifth loss at home in all competitions since the summer of 2020. 

While Union may have avoided some of the larger clubs like Manchester United, Arsenal, Monaco and Jose Mourinho’s Roma in the draw, Braga, their opponents on Thursday, are in the middle of a purple patch of their own.

With five wins and a draw they sit narrowly behind Benfica — and ahead of Porto and Sporting Lisbon — in the Portuguese league. 

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