Arsenal and Red Star Belgrade meet again in the Europa League
Next week's UEFA Europa League fixture between Arsenal and Crvena Zvezda (better known to many as Red Star Belgrade) at the Emirates Stadium promises to be another close affair if the previous leg in Serbia is anything to by. Goalless going into the final 10 minutes, it took a late red card for Red Star's left back Milan Rodic, and a spectacular overhead kick by Oliver Giroud five minutes later, to secure the win for Arsenal.
So whilst that left the North London giants comfortably top of Group H with three wins out of three, it leaves Red Star Belgrade fighting it out with BATE Borislov and 1.FC Koln to qualify. So far so good for Arsenal, but it must still be strange for their supporters to be in the competition, given that this was the first season that they had failed to qualify for the Champions League since Arsene Wenger took over as manager in 1996.
However, let's also spare a thought to the fanatic followers of Red Star Belgrade. Domestically, they have historically dominated their league together with great city rivals FK Partizan, with whom the compete in "The Eternal Derby". The domestic dominance is such that both having won 27 league titles. On the European front, FK Partizan came close to winning the European Cup in the 1965-66 season, finishing runners-up to the great Real Madrid side of that era. And whilst their great rivals came so close in the 1960s, Red Star Belgrade would go one step further in the 1990s. They'd nearly achieved their first European success in 1979, being edged out by West Germany's Borussia Mönchengladbach in the UEFA Cup Final. With the likes of club legend Vladimir Petrovic (who incidentally had a brief spell with Arsenal in 1982-83) and forward Dušan "Dule" Savic, they drew the first leg in Belgrade 1:1 in front of 87,000 fans before an Allan Simonsen penalty fifteen minutes into the return leg won the final two-one on aggregate.
That Red Star team of 1979 was a fine one, but ten years later it would be surpassed with the greatest array of talent on the club's history. The midfield was simply phenomenal. Vladimir Jugovic, Siniša Mihajlovic, Robert Prosinecki and Dejan Savicevic were such a superb unit, a fantastic mix of flair and hard work. Up front, Darko Pancev took the plaudits, scoring an incredible 84 goals in 91 games for the club. The team peaked in the 1990-91 season, guiding their way through to the final of the European Cup with wins over Grasshopper Club Zurich, Glasgow Rangers, Dynamo Dresden and then Bayern Munich in the semi-final, an epic second leg in Belgrade finally finishing 2:2 after Red Star had won the first leg in Munich 2:1 thanks to goals from Pancev and Savicevic. The final was against the fantastic free-scoring Olympique Marseille side that had been assembled by Bernard Tapie. Featuring the likes of Basile Boli, Chris Waddle, Jean-Pierre Papin and Abedi Pele, they had steamrollered everyone in their path on the way to the final, including a 4:1 demolition of Milan in the quarter finals. The final was much anticipated, and everyone expected a feast of football, with goals galore from two such attack-minded sides. However, as is often the case, it wasn't a free-flowing match as everyone had hoped, and 120 minutes of normal time and extra-time saw the match finish goalless. Red Star would go onto to score all five of their penalties in the subsequent shoot-out, whilst Manuel Amoros missed Marseille's opener, which meant that the Belgrade side lifted the trophy in the Stadio San Nicola in Bari. So, whilst the match certainly didn't make our list of top 10 European Cup Finals it certainly went down in history as Red Star Belgrade's greatest moment.
Many of those players would then be poached by the giants of Italian football, at that time the great financial force in Europe. Jugovic went on to play for Sampdoria, Juventus, Lazio and Inter Milan. Mihajlovic went to Roma and then subsequently to Sampdoria, Lazio and Inter Milan. Savicevic went to Milan and became part of their fantastic side of the 1990s. Pancev went to Inter Milan, although it didn't quite work out for him. And Real Madrid came knocking for Prosinecki.
So, just over 25 years on, and Arsenal face Red Star Belgrade in a European tie, both hoping that the betting odds of them getting through to the final and joining the list of Europa League winners will shorten as they get through each round.
The fans of Red Star are still as fanatical as ever, and they'll still be hoping for a great run in the competition, but something has changed. Will we really ever see the likes of Red Star Belgrade even reaching a Champions League final again, let alone winning it ?
The problem now is that, with some of the wealthy clubs of England, Spain and France now stockpiling young talent as soon as any is shown, the likes of Red Star Belgrade might get a season or two to showcase their young players before these wealthy clubs snap them up. Look at Ajax in 2016-17 when they reached the Europe league final - over the summer a lot of their players were transferred to clubs from the wealthier leagues. So the chances of these clubs getting anywhere near a Champions League Final again are extremely unlikely, although reaching the Europe League final is still a possibility, as Ajax proved last year. Can anything be done to help things ? Well, for all the criticism American Football gets about it's franchising system, or not having a promotion/relegation system in its structure, one of the great things it has is the annual Draft, the most common source of player recruitment ,which basically gives the weakest team from the previous season the first choice in young talent the following season. Whilst you can't imagine European football adopting this system, it does tend to spread the young talent around the clubs, rather than all of them ending up at a handful of teams, something that European football could ideally do with addressing.
So Arsenal and Red Star Belgrade remain two great historic clubs, but the money now involved in modern football dictates that they will have different futures at the highest levels of Eruopean football, which is a huge shame.