December 19th 2007, the last time Red Star Belgrade played in European competition. On that night, the Serbian club lost to Portuguese side Braga by a score of 2-0. Since then, it has been utter disappointment, mostly losing in the early stages of either Champions League or Europa League qualifying.
Fast forward to September 14th 2017, the boys are back in European competition with an impressive, nerve-wracking playoff win over Russian club Krasnodar. The celebrations after the match were priceless. Fans singing, celebrating and players crying as they finally achieved their goal of playing in Europe after 10 long, hard years.
This is a different team than in past years. They have a true identity under new bench boss, Vladan Milojevic. His ability to get the best out of players who seemed to be down on their luck has been absolutely remarkable. His surprising starting line ups as well as formations have stumped opposing coaches and given him the upper hand on the competition. His “taking one game at a time” approach has also worked very well and kept the players focused on the current task at hand.
Leaders of the team
Mitchell Donald has taken the captains armband this season and has looked like the Mitchell Donald of old. He struggled to get through the season last year, but has rebounded with his extraordinary defensive play, timely tackles and the ability to link up with the attacking players up front. It is important to note that Donald is the first foreign captain in Red Star history. Shows the belief that coach Milojevic has in him.
Guelor Kanga scored two remarkable goals in Europa League qualifying. One came vs Sparta Prague and the other was vs Krasnodar, a goal that really put Red Star through. His dribbling ability is incredible and even though he is 5’5 he has the capability to take on much bigger defenders and beat them with his speed. His link up with Richmond Boayke up front will be crucial for Red Star. Kanga does let his emotions get the best of him from time to time, something he will need to keep in check with all eyes on him.
Richmond Boayke is the man up top. He had seven goals in qualifying which was tied for first. His ability to be in the right place at the right time is outstanding. He does very well holding up the ball and waiting for help. It is very difficult to stop Red Star on a counter attack that features Kanga, Boayke and probably the fastest player on the team, Radonjic. Unlike most strikers in today’s day and age, Boakye does a tremendous job of trekking back and helping out the midfield when he is given the instructions to do so.
The backline was a bit shaky in their first tie vs Krasnodar in Russia as they conceded three goals, but it was much better in Belgrade when they played the return tie. You can say that Damien Le Tallec is the leader of the backline, but that would not be fair to the other three players who give 110% every match. Vujadin Savic, the son of Red Star legend Dusan Savic, has been a big surprise this season. He was slated in as a third or maybe fourth centreback, but he has looked so good that he is one of the first players on the game sheet. Milan Borjan, the starting goalkeeper for the Canadian national team, has been outstanding as well. If not for his crucial save in injury time vs Krasnodar, the Serbian giants would definitely not be here.
What to expect and the chances of going through
No question that this is a fairly tough group. Any time you get a team from Germany and England in your group you will need to be on top of your game.
The two matches vs Bate Borisov are must win games because it will be very difficult to take points off Cologne and Arsenal, respectively.
Now, looking ahead to Cologne, they have struggled immensely in the Bundesliga with three losses in three matches, however, Cologne still has a very good team that just has not clicked yet. Taking points off Cologne (at least two) will be a huge bonus.
The matches vs Arsenal will be the toughest, no question about it. Arsene Wenger has already stated that he will sit some of his top players for this competition, but that does not mean that the Gunners do not possess a quality team. Any point against Arsenal will be truly magical, especially if the team can pull off a great result in London.
I am ready to give Red Star a 50-50 chance of getting through. I believe in this team, I believe in this coach. The players have shown tremendous focus and discipline in the early stages of the season and they will need to take that with them through to the group stage and hopefully to the knockout round where anything can happen.
Ogi is a graduate of Humber College’s Sport Management program. He is the founder of Blago Blogger Sports.