Union Berlin drew 0-0 with Schalke at the weekend to go even in points with Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund at the top of the Bundesliga and take a three-way tie for first place. This was after achieving their first-ever positive result against Dutch opponents in the first leg (D1, L2). Union games have gone 198 minutes without a goal, but something has to give if the Iron Ones are to continue their club-record-setting European season into the UEFA Europa League (UEL) last-16.
The Berliners are still unbeaten in 2023 (W6, D2) despite their brief scoring drought, and they are also unbeaten at home since Union’s UEL debut in September (W9, D2). Whatever happens, don’t count on a big outcome either way since each of Union’s UEL group games finished 1-0 (W4, L2) and four of their last five victories were decided by 2-1 scores.
Ajax’s comeback under Johnny Heitinga (W5, D1) continued over the weekend as a 4-0 victory over Sparta Rotterdam kept them close to Feyenoord, the Eredivisie’s leading team and longtime rival. In preparation for their travel to Germany for what will be a competition-record tenth knockout stage participation, that result should serve as the ideal confidence booster.
Given their European heritage and strong overall record versus German opponents, Ajax won’t feel like outsiders even though the bookmakers rank Union as favorites (W23, D8, L8). Not to mention that they have advanced from ten of their previous twelve two-legged matches against teams from across the border, giving them a 60% winning percentage against such opponents on German soil (W7, D5, L8).
Crucial conflict: Union goalkeeper Frederik Ronnow has made just two stops in his last two scoreless draws, none of which came against Ajax in the first leg! Although the Iron Ones’ resolute defense deserves credit for that, Ajax’s Mohammed Kudus will be hoping to have a say after contributing to six goals in seven games in Europe this season (G4, A2). In their weekend 4-0 victory against Sparta Rotterdam, the Ghanaian attacker also scored the game’s final goal before paying a moving ode to the late Christian Atsu.
In each of their last 11 European games, Union has scored only one goal or none at all (W5, D2, L4).
After missing the first leg due to suspension, Christopher Trimmel and Janik Haberer will be available for recall by Union Berlin.
Due to Josip Juranovic’s performance, Trimmel might only be given a seat on the substitutes’ bench, but Haberer might be chosen over Morten Thorsby.
Jordan Siebatcheu is a candidate for a return after Union Berlin failed to score in its last two games, although Diogo Leite will need to be examined due to illness.
Although Davy Klaassen is a possibility in central midfield, Heitinga is expected to start with a similar Ajax Eleven to the one that played last week.
Heitinga will also consider Brian Brobbey, but he is more likely to stay one of the replacements.
Ronnow, Doekhi, Knoche, Leite; Juranovic, Laidouni, Khedira, Haberer, Roussillon; Behrens, Becker are likely starters for Union Berlin.
Rulli, Rensch, Timber, Bassey, Wijndal, Alvarez, Taylor, Berghuis, Kudus, Bergwijn, and Tadic might be Ajax’s starting lineup.
Union Berlin defeats Ajax, we predict.
Ajax would think that since they are scoring goals frequently at home, they can do the same on the continent. Union Berlin, however, is more powerful than any side in the Eredivisie, and we believe that will manifest as they make it to the round of 16.