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Know Your Opponent: Red Star Belgrade

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A crucial match in Champions League awaits Spurs in eastern Europe.

Tottenham Hotspur v Crvena Zvezda: Group B - UEFA Champions League Photo by Rob Newell - CameraSport via Getty Images

Tottenham Hotspur travel to Belgrade today ahead of their match with Red Star on Wednesday. Famous for one of the most intimidating atmospheres in the world, Spurs look to take a huge step toward qualification for the knockout stage. The task is not impossible, but it will be daunting. Joining us this week is Kirsten Schlewitz and Uros Popovic from the football blog Unusual Efforts. Kirsten’s a fan of Red Star and well in-tune with Serbian football. Our guests offer their perspectives on the matchup, what Red Star has to do in order to stay in Europe and why qualification for the Champions League is so skewed.

CFC: First off, talk to us about Unusual Efforts and what you and the staff there do!

UE: Unusual Efforts is a website that is created entirely by women and non-binary persons, but directed to the soccer-loving community at large (and sometimes, given our content, it resonates with those who aren’t even all that interested in soccer, but want to read about its intersection with politics, or health, or a specific time period). I’m the editor-in-chief and due to serious health issues it’s been difficult to put out new content, but they’re finally under control and we’ve got a bunch of stories lined up. Our editorial board and podcast team are called The Jellyfish (no, we don’t remember why); Jessie Losch (a Spurs fan!) helps with editing and often sets the podcast agenda, Megan Smith does a lot of our socials and helps keep us organized, and Sonja Missio is in charge of sniffing out money and making amazing photoshops. [Author’s note: Now we know where to send Earl of Shoop for lessons.] While we haven’t been putting up much content recently, we’ve been doing a lot of behind the scenes work to foster community, which fits with our overarching goal: find women and non-binary persons ways to enter soccer media. The larger the community we have, the more likely that someone knows someone who might have an in somewhere!

CFC: The Serbian SuperLiga has been dominated by the two clubs in Belgrade, Red Star and Partizan, since its founding 13 years ago. Are the two Eternal Derby clubs run that much better than the others or is there more to it?

UE: The two have dominated ever since Yugoslavia fell apart, since 1991 the only other team that’s won was FK Obilić in 1997-98...and the club’s president was indicted for war crimes the next year. Even in the old Yugoslavia, Red Star and Partizan were the most decorated, though it wasn’t as ridiculous as now. The primary reason is these two clubs have always been favored by the governments (both Yugoslavian and Serbian). The two continue to have the biggest budgets and most fans throughout Serbia support one of these two clubs. It’s very rare that those two don’t end up as the top two in the league - though it did happen last season when Partizan finished 3rd, some 30 points behind Red Star.

CFC: We’ve all seen the rather intimidating video of the tunnel cam. Was that an unusual circumstance, or can Spurs expect a similar reception on Wednesday?

UE: The tunnel video that circulated last year was shot prior to our Europa League games in 2017. The graffiti is gone, but that’s not going to stop it being a bit scary for visitors, as it’s quite long and quite loud. When the players emerge, it won’t be to a friendly reception...the noise will get steadily louder as they come out. We can’t say teams will be more prepared for how the atmosphere will affect them this season, as only Olympiacos has been to the Markana, and they were met with a friendly reception (the teams are twinned). Yet the longer the game went on, the more rattled they seem (of course, their red card didn’t help)..

CFC: Red Star has only played one home Champions League match thus far, and they defeated 10 man Olympiacos, as you mentioned. We know they beat Liverpool in Belgrade last season. How confident are you that they can get a result against a Spurs side that has struggled mightily on the road?

UE: Did you know Zvezda beat Liverpool on the exact day that Spurs will come to town? And that we defeated the same domestic team, with the same scoreline, prior to that match? [Author’s Note: We’re screwed.] You’re lucky though; that was the 7pm game, so maybe the bad juju won’t pass to you. We hope so, though, because that 5-0 defeat was tough to watch. Yet Red Star is much tougher at home - more aggressive, braver. That said, the first half against Olympiacos was not particularly good. Although the halftime atmosphere was friendly (Red Star fans cheered the visitors, even though they were winning, the team came back out ready to fight, and dominated even before Olympiacos got a red card. Adding a second striker really changed the game; although Olympiacos had few decent attacks, it was mostly one-sided.

We acknowledge the big gap in quality between the two teams...but we also acknowledged it before Liverpool. It’ll come down to just how shaken Spurs were by Sunday’s draw (and horrific injury) and how they handle the atmosphere. Like we said, teams seem to know, on an intellectual level, what they’re walking into, but they still appear shaken when they hear just how much noise the Marakana can make...and that we don’t let up after the initial reception. In other words, we’ve got no need for a Man City-style recruitment of “influencers” to create an atmosphere here.

CFC: How do you think Red Star adjusts to this match given the 5-0 loss on the road to Spurs?

UE: One thing that has to change is that Red Star needs to be more aggressive. It’s a bit strange for a team like Red Star, that is clearly weaker, to have made fewer fouls than Tottenham. It seemed that the team tried to be more open than against Bayern, but wasn’t really fully committed and they ended up looking silly at times. Tottenham, besides just being better, is also physically stronger, especially in midfield, so I would expect us to add more muscle there, perhaps even a three-man midfield to try to make it a more balanced battle. The lineup will definitely change because our best striker, Richmond Boakye, is back from injury, and the team won’t have to depend entirely on Marko Marin.

CFC: Are there concerns over safety for visiting English fans, especially after the away support ban in London?

UE: We sincerely doubt there is any reason to be afraid. This is the third year in a row that Red Star have been in European play, and none of the visiting fans have encountered problems. I would not expect the ultras to invite Tottenham fans to walk together to the game, like they did with Olympiacos, but they’re unlikely to harass you in the street. That said, regardless of which city you go to: be careful. Avoid doing anything that could be considered a provocation in the idiots who take this ultra thing too seriously...and maybe bring a neutral sweatshirt to cover your kit once the visiting fans are allowed out of the stadium.

Also, go out and sit in a cafe and drink coffee for an hour. You may end up making friends with the opposition. Serbs like to talk.

CFC: A more general question: Do you think qualification for the smaller leagues to Europe’s biggest competition is too harsh and what changes do you think could be implemented?

UE: Absolutely. Red Star began playing qualifiers in July, so it already feels like we’ve played an entire season. It does kind of make it a little sweeter when we do end up qualifying for Champions League, but it is ridiculously hard - not just for Red Star, but for all the teams from smaller leagues. It should be made easier for them to reach the group stage. Obviously, that doesn’t mean we should deliberately make the Champions League weaker, but having to go through four rounds of matches to reach the group stage is too much.

To be quite honest, if it was up to me, I would get rid of the group stage and bring back the old Champions Cup format and get rid of the UEFA coefficient system so, for example, Barcelona could meet Manchester City in the first round.. But obviously none of that will happen, and we’ll go the opposite way with some sort of Super League.

CFC: What’s your prediction for the match?

UE: Uros: Realistically, I think it could be a hard-fought game, but likely a win for Spurs. Let’s say 2-1 [and hope the reverse-jinx works]

Kirsten: I don’t do predictions, precisely because of jinxing. I’m just thrilled to be able to watch Champions League games live.

A huge shout-out to Kirsten and Uros for joining us for Know Your Opponent. I highly recommend you check out Unusual Efforts when you get some time and we wish them all the best in the future.