Prosinečki's Red Star revolution already bearing fruit

Robert Prosinečki did a hop, skip and a jump. He hugged a member of his coaching staff, then turned back towards the field of play and raised a celebratory fist in the air. Once the elation subsided, he pulled at the lapels of his suit jacket, took in a deep breath and hoisted his trousers up a bit as though to compose himself. Try as he might, Prosinečki couldn’t keep the emotion in and incited the crowd once more.

A few moments earlier Red Star striker Filip Kasalica had been put through on goal. This was a chance for individual glory in the Belgrade derby. Challenged by Partizan defender Nemanja Rnić, he stayed strong and held his ground, but by now the ball was getting away from him. Just as it seemed to be out of reach, he slid and prodded a shot between onrushing goalkeeper Vladimir Stojković’s legs. It rolled into the corner of the net.

Kasalica promptly vaulted the advertising hoardings and ran, arms-outstretched, towards the hardcore support at the Marakana. He had already announced himself to them on March 14 by scoring the fastest debut goal in Red Star’s history a minute and 13 seconds after coming on against Smederevo. Yet the meaning attached to a match-winning strike in a fixture of this intensity will inevitably bring endearment almost beyond comprehension.

There was still a quarter of an hour remaining in the first leg of Serbia’s Lav Cup semi-final, but at 2-0, Red Star had broken Partizan’s resolve. They’d been on the ropes at times, legs wobbling, and were fortunate that each of their sucker punches landed. Both goals were opportunistic. Luka Milunović’s opener, a dinked finish over Stojković’s shoulder inside the 20th minute, came when another youthful Luka, this time carrying the surname of Milivojević, slotted his teammate through after capitalising on a costly defensive mistake. 

Red Star fans celebrate victory over their bitter rivals

This was the game’s narrative arc. Whereas Red Star left nothing unpunished, Partizan spared their rivals. Lamine Diarra hit the post and SaÅ¡a Illić fluffed his lines when presented with a one-on-one, skewing an effort wide. Better finishing may have left the visitors with fewer regrets. Instead, by letting Red Star off the hook, there is a burgeoning sense that this is the latest sign that the momentum might just be gradually swinging away from Partizan. 

If anyone had suggested as much back in December, they’d have been open to ridicule. Set on what looked like an unstoppable course for a record fifth straight league title, Partizan were 10 points clear at the winter break.  But a fall-out which started after their early exit from the Europa League at the hands of Shamrock Rovers back in August has threatened to derail their campaign.

Left seething at their elimination, president Dragan Đjurić refused to let the issue die. He repeatedly criticised Partizan’s coach Aleksandar Stanojevic and Mladen Krstajić, last season’s captain, who had been installed as the club’s director of sport at the beginning of the season. When a run of 13 consecutive wins didn’t appease him, a sick and tired Krstajić decided it was time to hit back. He was fired for his trouble. Stanojevic then resigned in protest.

Considering the size of Partizan’s lead at the top of Serbia’s SuperLiga, there was little reason to panic. They were ‘untouchable’. Whoever came in would merely have to pick up where Stanojevic left off and follow the script he had laid out. How hard could it be? No one could possibly stuff this up, could they? So confident were Partizan, they even dared to appoint the hapless Avram Grant as Stanojevic’s successor.

It didn’t take long for things to turn ugly: back-to-back draws in Grant's first two games against struggling Novi Pazar and mid-table Sloboda Point Sevojno brought dissent from the Partizan crowd. Grant was pelted with lighters. He won the next two, but defeat to Red Star in the derby left him under more pressure. He seemed indifferent to it all. “I cannot make him show emotions, he’s just that kind of guy,” Đjurić said. “If it was up to me, I’d be emotional even if Partizan were playing cricket.”

Prosinečki took over at Red Star in December 2010

While Grant remains on a sticky wicket, Prosinečki is all of a sudden bowling everyone over. In the last month, Red Star have won six games in a row and have reduced the gap at the top to six-points. There’s an outside chance of reclaiming the league championship, a feat they haven’t achieved since 2007. No longer also-rans, Red Star are at least headed in the right direction and that owes a lot to a courageous decision Prosinečki took in the winter.

A year into the job and frustrated at a lack of progress, he tore up his original plans and started over, placing 11 players on the transfer list. “We need to inject fresh blood into the club at once by adding young talents from Red Star’s academy,” Prosinečki said. “They are the club’s future and I am convinced that’s the only way of looking at things because signing players who become surplus to requirements after six months is not the best policy.”

Red Star promoted their kids and reinvested the £2.5 million recouped from player sales in yet more blossoming talent. It was thought that such a strategy would not yield instant results, that everyone needed to have faith and be patient. “Building a team capable of giving our fans something to cheer about will take time and we can only think of domestic silverware again in a few years,” Prosinečki concluded. Instead, beyond all expectation, they’re already in contention for honours. 

Enthusiasm. Exuberance. The benefits associated with youth have reinvigorated Red Star. Milunović, in particular, has caught the eye. A free transfer from Zulte Waregem in Belgium, the 19-year-old Serbia Under-21 striker has scored three times in his first four games for his new club. Like fellow new signing Kasalica, one of five derby debutants last week, his goal against Partizan has been taken as a signal of intent, perhaps even the portent of a new dawn.

But forget talk of Red Star bringing through a generation capable of winning the European Cup again, as Prosinečki famously did in 1991. He admits that a repeat of that achievement is impossible today. “When I think about the players of that time, I am convinced that victory was inevitable,” he said. “Boban, Jarni, Mijatović, Suker… The Yugoslav league was among the top five in Europe. A revival would be difficult. Yugoslavia had a population of 24 million and the players weren’t allowed to leave before they were 28. Today the best players leave at 17. Red Star, Partizan and Dinamo Zagreb live on this, on talents. Maybe a team can emerge, but it’d only last a year.”

For now, that’s what Prosinečki is aiming towards. If he were to win something this season, then the chain-smoking former playmaker could at least afford to put down his Marlboros and light a cigar instead. There’s a lot of smoke at Red Star and perhaps this team is about to come alight too.

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