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Dublin: 18 °C Wednesday 24 July, 2019

Champions League return brings back memories of Red Star's magicians and their famous Euro nights

The side were crowned champions in 1991 with the likes of Dejan Savicevic and Robert Prosinecki proving crucial.

IT WAS LAST season when the momentum began.

They slipped past Krasnodar on away goals and qualified for the Europa League group stage – the first time they’d managed it in over a decade.

They reached the knockout round and narrowly lost out to CSKA Moscow.

But there was a bigger statement earlier this week when Red Star Belgrade dug deep in their away fixture against Red Bull Salzburg, coming from two goals down in the second-half to draw 2-2 and progress to Europe’s elite competition for the first time since 1992.

They can look forward to group games against Liverpool, Napoli and Paris Saint-Germain and no matter what happens, it’s good to have them back mainly because of the memories their presence conjure up.

They had hinted at good things before they eventually tasted European Cup victory in 1991.

Four years earlier, they faced Real Madrid in the quarter-finals and beat them 4-2 in Belgrade. But they suffered a 2-0 loss back at the Bernabeu and exited on away goals.

In 1989, it was even tougher on them.

They were drawn to face Milan in the second round and managed a 1-1 draw at the San Siro.

A fortnight later, one of the most remarkable ties took place and like any good story, there were plenty of layers.

Soccer - Friendly - Bradford City v Red Star Belgrade - Valley Parade Source: Neal Simpson

Dejan Savicevic was Red Star’s big summer signing but within a couple of days, he’d been called up for mandatory army service which ruled him out of the upcoming season. However, he was allowed play in European games and for Yugoslavia.

So, against Milan, he was instrumental and put Red Star in front shortly after half-time. But then, quite incredibly, Mother Nature intervened.

Milan had been on the ropes and were down a man after Pietro Paolo Virdis’s sending-off. But 15 minutes after Savicevic found the net, the local fog started to pick up.

Referee Dieter Pauly had little choice but to blow it up but what happened next was extraordinary.

The game was replayed – in its entirety – the following afternoon with Red Star coach Vladimir Petrovic agreeing to the short turnaround.

“At half-time the visibility was fine, but minute by minute it got worse,” captain Dragan Stojkovic told the BBC in 2013.

First, I couldn’t see the stand. Then I couldn’t see the goal. Then I couldn’t see the penalty area. Then I couldn’t see the ball! We knew it was a bad idea (to play the next day). We needed a rest. Savicevic was in the military, he was not a full professional footballer and the advantage was now with Milan. They were monsters physically, with many good players on the bench who could help them.”

Because of the extra recovery time, Arrigo Sacchi was able to name Ruud Gullit – who had been struggling with injury – in the squad. It was a sign of just how strong the group was and another motivating factor for them after getting out of jail the night previously.

Red Star battled gamely once again but tiredness took its toll, particularly on Savicevic. It ended 1-1 after extra-time but he missed in the shootout as Milan took it 4-2 on penalties.  The Rossoneri survived and went on to win the competition outright, easily brushing past Real Madrid in the semis and Steaua Bucharest in the final.

But in 1991, the Serbs regrouped superbly having added some immense talent to their first-team.

Soccer - European Cup - Final - Red Star Belgrade v Olympic Marseille Source: Ross Kinnaird

By that stage, Darko Pancev – who signed at the same time as Savicevic and who also had to serve in the military for his first season at the club – had developed into one of the best and most prolific strikers in Europe.

But in midfield, they possessed four gems.

Savicevic, clearly, was a master-craftsman and proved it once more against Dynamo Dresden in the quarter-finals with a stunning individual goal. In the middle were Vladimir Jugovic and Sinisa Mihajlovic while on the right side was Robert Prosinecki, the              player of the tournament in the 1987 World Youth Championship when Yugoslavia tasted their famous success. Against Rangers in the second round, he conjured a moment of genius in the first-leg, curling a majestic free-kick passed Chris Woods.

In the semis, Red Star went to Munich and beat Bayern thanks to Savicevic’s winner. But in the return leg, their luck was in – for a change. The Germans had control of the tie, leading 2-1 and winning on away goals. But Klaus Augenthaler scored a late own goal and the Serbs were through 4-3 on aggregate.

The final itself was largely uneventful but Marseille had the better chances, notably through Chris Waddle’s header from close-range.

Soccer - European Cup - Final - Red Star Belgrade v Olympic Marseille Source: Ross Kinnaird

Poetically, given Red Star’s loss two years previously, they kept their nerve in the shootout and scored all five of their kicks with Pancev proving the hero.

Savicevic and Jugovic would go on to Champions League success with Milan and Juventus respectively, Mihajlovic became a Serie A legend and Prosinecki was a key part of the Croatian side that finished third at the 1998 World Cup.

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About the author:

Eoin O'Callaghan

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