The Serbian league is hardly among the most exciting in Europe, but it is one of the few that are still open 3 rounds before the season's end. But things looked different in March: Partizan had 11 points more than Red Star, who had just sacked their coach Aleksandar Janković. There was nothing to suggest that Red Star might turn things around. Most people would have been ready to bet that Partizan would increase the lead. But instead, over the last month and a half, Partizan's lead melted away. Now, before the biggest game of the season, they sit just two points above Red Star.
Putting the 144th match in context
The Eternal Derby (Večiti derbi) is one of the biggest derbies in the world, despite the quality of football slipping since the good old days of the '70s and '80s, when the Yugoslav league was among the best five in Europe. Since the derby began in 1945, Red Star have had far the better of Partizan:
|Red Star Wins||Draw||Partizan Wins|
|Total (All Competitions)||104||56||72|
However, in recent years, Partizan have dominated Serbian football. The black and whites have won five championships in a row and have played in both Champions and Europa League, although with very little success in either. Red Star, on the other hand, have not participated in top-level European play since the days of the Champions Cup. But they can brag about victories in the last four derbies, all in the 2011- 2012 season.
Partizan falling, Red Star rising
In November, Red Star's Marakana played host to the first derby of the season. Partizan had the lead twice and were up 2-1 at halftime, a comforting lead as no side trailing at the half had ever come back to win the derby. Red Star made history, however, pulling off a 3-2 victory.
As recently as March 30th, in Round 20, Partizan had an 11 point lead over Red Star. But they drew against Hajduk Kula, and then against Sloboda Uzice, before losing to Vojvodina. Two weeks later, after a goalless draw against Novi Pazar, Partizan sacked coach Vladimir Vermezović and replaced him with Vuk Rašović. The new coach managed two wins, securing Partizan's two point lead ahead of the derby.
Red Star, too, cut ties with their coach, showing Aleksandar Janković the door after a loss to Radnicki Nis. Ricardo Sa Pinto, the former coach of Sporting Lisbon, stepped into his place. Since Sa Pinto's appointment, Red Star have won every match, eight in total. There's no denying they've had a bit of luck on their side, such as in the last match, when a penalty kick from Nenad Milijaš gave Red Star the lead, and only a 90th minute miraculous save from Boban Bajković kept the final score at 1-0.
Battle for Belgrade, Tussle for Title
So, what can we expect from this derby? Red Star must attack -- they need to make up the two point difference and the two remaining matches after the derby won't be easy. They'll rely on Milijaš, the captain and heart of the team. He's not very quick, but he's able to score goals, and his through balls often slice opponent defenses and create chances for his teammates. He's also a danger at set pieces, whether through headers or scoring directly from free kicks.
Red Star have other options in the attack, although Danko Lazović, Red Star's most talented player, is still questionable for the derby. Since the arrival of Sa Pinto, forward Abiola Dauda has been given more chances, and he's likely to be the biggest threat to Partizan's goal.
Partizan have the advantage, though. They can play the waiting game, relying on counterattacks. Despite the low number of goals conceded since Sa Pinto took over, Red Star's defense can be shaky, and will be vulnerable to Partizan's style. The speed of Lazar Marković, Partizan's best player, will pose a great threat. Red Star will also have to find a way to contain another talented forward, Aleksandar Mitrović (nicknamed ‘Balotelli' by his teammates because of his behavior). And although veteran Saša Ilić was never the fastest player on the pitch, he remains one of the best in the league nonetheless, thanks to his great technique.
While Partizan may have the lead at the top of the table, it's Red Star that have the momentum now. Should they win, and later lift the title, it would be the biggest comeback in the league's history.
Match Date / Time: Saturday, May 18 at 7:30 p.m. local, 1:30 p.m. ET
Venue: Stadion Partizana, Belgrade