Red Star Belgrade, the 2017-2018 Serbian SuperLiga champions, have been drawn into a group with PSG, Liverpool, and Napoli. Yet despite making it into the Champions League, the club remains an enigma. Fortunately, this Crvena Zvezda fan can help enlighten Napoli fans as to what they might expect from the first group stage match in Belgrade
Red Star, European Cup Champions
The first thing that comes to mind when most people think of Red Star is fire. The fans love to set off flares, and anyone venturing into the North Stand for an important match better bring a scarf or risk being taken out of commission by a fit of coughing.
But the next thing that comes to mind is that Zvezda won the 1991 European Cup. They faced off against Olympique Marseille at the final in Bari* … which is considered by many to be one of the worst finals in European football history. Almost nothing happened. Red Star ultimately won on penalties, and in the end being able to lift the trophy is all that matters.**
Many were, and still are, shocked that Red Star won a European championship. But it really wasn’t all that surprising. Not only had the team been playing excellent football—with the exception of that final—but they’d spent the last decade preparing to lift that Cup.
Route to the Group Stage
Just like in 1991, Red Star needed to beat four teams to get to this point. To put this in perspective, they started qualification on 11 July—the day Croatia was beating England in the World Cup semifinal. Red Star beat Latvian side Spartaks and dominated Suduva, from Lithuania. The Slovakian team Spartak Trnava presented more of a challenge: it was 1-1 in both games and Zvezda won in extra time.
Then came Red Bull Salzburg, a round that Red Star were absolutely not supposed to win. Yet they managed a goalless draw in Belgrade, went to Salzburg, and, incredibly, came back from being down 2-0 to draw 2-2 and progress to the group stage.
This last match was ugly. Red Star had just 33% possession, and made 216 passes to Salzburg’s 417. Only 56% of those were accurate. But those two goals from El Fardou Ben (in two minutes, no less) were enough. Back at home, Belgrade erupted—the red-and-white side of it, anyway. It would be Red Star’s first appearance in the group stage since the rebranding in 1992-1993. In other words, their first shot in this era in which wealth and image dominate.
How Red Star Play
Those who only tuned in for that match in Salzburg must believe Red Star are just another in a long line of Eastern European teams that make it to the finals by playing ugly, defensive football—in other words, what many without that all-important money must do to grab a bit of the pot.
The reality is that this team typically plays football that is attacking, even exciting. It’s a team changed from last year’s Europa League (where Red Star nearly got a point from the mighty mighty Arsenal!); in particular, club captain Mitchel Donald has left the side. And Nemanja Radonjić departed for OM, seemingly minutes after he helped his club qualify for the Champions League.
Yet somehow Zvezda have an even stronger side this season. There are a number of former Serbian U21s who look as though they might move on to big clubs. Richmond Boyake, who scored 29 goals in 39 matches for Red Star in the 13 months he was with the team, has returned. Ben is the team’s top scorer and he’s scored six of his nine goals in Champions League qualifying. But even he is overshadowed by the signing of Marko Marin, a forward who might be considered a journeyman elsewhere but who has quickly been embraced by fans—because he’s been one of them since he was a child. In just one game he’s shown he’s far too good for the Serbian league.
However, this team really revolves around Nenad Krstičić. Serie A fans might remember him as the talented player who suffered a setback in his career when diagnosed with cancer while at Sampdoria. He, too, may be a little too good for domestic play, but he is exactly what the club needed: a playmaker that makes the team tick, a brain that gets them where they need to go.
What to expect
Even Red Star fans acknowledge it’s likely the team will come out of the group stage with exactly zero points. But any team that underestimates them could be in for a rude awakening. Coach Vladan Milojević loves to pull surprises with his lineups and formations. Ben seems able to get himself into a scoring position from almost anywhere. Marin will certainly want to prove himself at this level.
And, of course, there’s the atmosphere at the Marakana. Everyone in Group C knows the feeling of a full stadium filled with passionate fans, but Red Star’s opponents might not know exactly what it’s like to have those passionate fans project their hostility at the visiting side. There will not be fire. There will be noise and chanting and jeering and, well, maybe a little fire (depending on how scared the fans are of more UEFA fines). This could be Red Star’s greatest threat.
Projected lineup against Napoli
Milan Rodić—Miloš Degenek—Vujadin Savić—Filip Stojković
Nenad Krstičić—Branko Jovičić
Ben—Lorenzo Ebecilio—Marko Marin
*This is not to suggest any 2018-19 Champions League matches should be played in Bari.
**Unless you engage in systematic cheating to do so.