We’re in the sixth season of my fledgling managerial career. We started in Greece. The Greek 2nd division SOUTH to be precise, with Aigaleo. After two and a half seasons of no progress and little chance of ever getting promotion to the first division, I jumped over to the Serbian Second Division. It was a backwards move to a lower ranked league, BUT, it’s an easier route to get promoted in Serbia than it is in Greece. FK Feniks, a club only CREATED in 2006, was the destination and after finishing 2nd in our first season, we gained promotion to the SuperLiga. The following season exceeded ALL expectations. We finished 9th, when all pre-season predictions has us 16th and relegated. With that minor miracle came the attention of Red Star, one of the GIANTS of Serbian football. The pull of European football was too much to resist. So here we are……….
July saw us start our league and European campaigns with a 100% record. Two league wins and two Europa Conference League wins. TSC are up next in the league, one of FIVE league fixtures this month. After resting Rahman and Lekovic last time out, they’re restored to the starting eleven. As is Bulat, who WAS not registered for the European games. That’s changed now, so he’s set for a spell in the starting line-up.
MATCH DAY As we have with every other game so far this season, we come out the blocks on fire!!! Just five minutes are on the clock when Milosavljevic thunders home the opening goal from the angle of the area!! He’s fed by Bulat on the edge of the box and drives at goal before unleashing his shot!!!! 1-0 Red Star!! The pattern continues with Red Star attacking and TSC defending. Lorenzi has the ball in the net in the 20th minute but he’s offside and it’s rightly ruled out……WAIT……VAR is looking at it…….THE GOAL STANDS!!! 2-0 Red Star!!! Milosavljevic turns provider this time, threading a pass between the TSC defence and, apparently, Lorenzi springs the offside trap and fires home! The TSC players surround the ref, the replay makes it LOOK like Lorenzi is offside, but the goal stands. TSC are still complaining three minutes later as Lorenzi doubles his tally and puts the game beyond their reach. It’s a cross from the right by Bjekovic that finds Lorenzi in ACRES of space and a simple tap in from 6 yards makes it 3-0 Red Star!! TSC wake up a little, only enough to stop us scoring another that half, but for them so far it’s an improvement.
SECOND HALF We blown them away in the first half and the players are told to keep it up in the second. They obviously listen, as it takes just three minutes for Rahman to feed Milosavljevic, who moves it on first time to Campar. Campar hits his shot first time and just like that it’s 4-0 Red Star!! The early goal takes any wind that TSC had left in their sail and, with the game won, we take our foot off the gas a little. The release of constant pressure allows TSC to grow back into the game and with a little under ten minutes to play they score their consolation goal!! It’s a cross from the right that is met by a fierce shot from 8 yards out. That shot is blocked, but the rebound falls to Csordas and he makes no mistake with the goal gaping!! 4-1 Red Star!!! The last ten minutes brings out our defensive best as we just shut the game down. FINAL SCORE 4-1 Red Star!!
As good as we were in the first half, we allowed TSC to grow into the match in the second. We bossed the possession but our shooting accuracy, again, is not good enough. Yes, we scored four goals, but they came from just FIVE SHOTS ON TARGET!!!
The 100% league record continues with just Partizan, predictably, joining us on maximum points. We’re back on the Europa trail next. First leg at home against Lublana. I’m going strong for the first leg and trying to have the tie won after the first leg.
The week start with offers flooding in for winger Dejan Zukic. He’s not a player that I’m ever likely to play, he’s not registered in the Europa or league squads…BUT……I’m not going to let him go for less than a decent chunk of his value. Offers of £880k for a player worth £3.2mill are rejected out of hand.
MATCH DAY It’s another unchanged line-up as we attempt to put this tie to bed in the first leg. Ilijin and Lorenzi and clicked well when playing together, and the youngsters are going to be needed again if we’re to be successful. Red Star get us underway and almost open the scoring in the first minute. Lorenzi unleashing a shot from the edge of the area that flies over. It’s nothing more than a statement of intent from the Belgian, but it serves to get his eye in. Two minutes later and a cross from Bjekovic is met by the head of Campar. It’s another effort that doesn’t hit the target, HOPEFULLY, this isn’t going to be one of those nights!! No, No it’s not. We keep the pressure on, and in the 12th minute make the breakthrough. Ilijin running onto to Stanic pass and calmly slotting it past the keeper!!! 1-0 RED STAR!! Ilijin has a chance to double his tally in the 19th minute as he latches onto a lofted pass by Lorenzi. He lets the ball bounce once before lifting it over the oncoming keeper. There’s just a touch too much on it though and it clips the crossbar on it’s way over!! Lorenzi finally gets his goal in the 27th minute. The Red Star pressing forces Lublana to go all the way back to their keeper who clears it long to the waiting Red Star defence. The ball is quickly moved upfield and Campar threads a pass into the path of Lorenzi who finishes first time…….THE FLAG IS UP THOUGH…….VAR HAS A LOOK…….
AND THE GOAL IS RULED OUT!!! Despite our near complete domination, there’s still just the one goal in it. Lublana haven’t registered even a single attempt as of yet and we finally get the second goal that our play has deserved!! Campar flashing a shot across the keeper into the far corner after great work by Bjekovic on the right. 2-0 Red Star!!! Still we keep the pressure on. Wave after wave after wave of Red Star attacks crash onto the Lublana back line. Finally, with a little over 5 minutes to go till half time, we get the chance to put the match to bed. Lekovic is pushed from behind when challenging for a corner and the ref has no hesitation in pointing to the spot!! Stanic places the ball on the spot and steps back for his run up. It’s right footed……AND IN TO THE KEEPERS LEFT!!! The Lublana keeper managed to get a hand to it but the power on the shot was too much to keep it out!! 3-0 Red Star!! Lublana wake up a little and finally register a shot on target just before the ref calls time on a great half for Red Star!!
SECOND HALF There is nothing but praise for the players at half time. They’re sent back out with a smile on their faces. We start the second as we finished first half, on the attack. Lorenzi beats his man on the right but his cross is over hit. Rahman keeps the ball in play on the left wing and lifts a cross back into the middle. Stanic is making a delayed run into the box and his header powers into the net with the keeper stranded!! 4-0 Red Star with just 3 minutes of the second half played. With the game in the bag and bigger fish to fry on the horizon, the intensity is dialled down and the games fizzles out. The ref calls time on a one-sided affair with Red Star running out 4-0 WINNERS!!
It was the type of near total domination that we needed. The tie is already won now and the squad can be rotated in the second leg to keep the legs fresh. 9 shots on target from 21 is close enough to the one-in-two ratio that I class as acceptable.
Mid-table Kolubara are up next. It’s only 2 days removed from the Lublana game so I’m expecting to have to rotate the team a little. The starting XI are given an extra day off to rest and come back fresh as a daisy though!!! So it’s an unchanged side that will face Kolubara, and then a rotated one for the return leg against Lublana. Lekovic comes knocking on the door after a bid from Almeria is knocked back. He wants to go, can’t fault him really. La Liga is a bigger league. We agree that if they come back with a bid matching his value then I’ll accept.
MATCH DAY We are in great form, everything we’ve touched at the minute is turning to gold. Once again we are out the traps quickly and Bulat has a deflected shot cleared off the line after just 30 seconds!! The pressure continues and Lorenzi slams home the opener in the tenth minute!! Stanic picks up the ball in the centre circle and drives at goal. He’s not closed down until the edge of the area and he then threads a pass to Lorenzi. His first time shot fizzes past the keeper…….FLAGS UP THOUGH……..VAR IS LOOKING AT LORENZI’S POSITION……
VAR COMES BACK AND UPHOLDS THE GOAL!!!! 1-0 Red Star and it’s another early goal. Milosavljevic has a good effort that inches wide on 20 minutes AND THEN, TEN MINUTES LATER IS SHOWN A STRAIGHT RED CARD!!! It’s a appalling challenge from behind and fully deserves his early bath. We’re ahead and in control, but will have to play for an hour now with ten men!! Before Kolubara get a chance to build up a head of steam with the extra man…..We hit a second!! A ball inside from Stanic to Bulat is moved on first time to Lorenzi. The keeper closes down the angle but can’t stop Lorenzi from going round him and rolling the ball into the unprotected net!! 2-0 Red Star! We’ve set up to be attacking and pro-active. We’ve got a cushion now, so the edge is taken off it and it helps to see out the remaining ten minutes of the first half.
SECOND HALF Milosavljevic is given a dressing down at half time but everyone else is gee’d up. We keep control of the game and on the hour, Ilijin is sacrificed to bring another midfielder in. With four minutes added on by the ref, Lorenzi has a glorious chance to complete his hat-trick but his attempted lob from twenty yards out comes back from the cross-bar and into the waiting arms of the keeper. The ref calls time and it’s another win in the league!! FINAL SCORE 2-0 Red Star!!
It wasn’t the walkover that we’ve had recently, that said we played for AN HOUR with a man less. We still had the most possession and Rosic, although he faced shots on target, was never really tested. Partizan have kept up the pressure and it’s both of us still with the 100% record. It’s a fair old time till we play each other so it’s a challenge to see who blinks first!! Next up is the return leg of the Europa Conference League qualifier, THEN, it’ll be our biggest test so far. We’re at home in the league to Cukaricki Stankom. They finished third last season and are breathing down our necks in third again.
First though, we have to finish the job against Lublana. We’re a tired squad, who have been playing almost every other day. So, bearing in mind we’re 4-0 up, there’s NINE changes planned for the match. Only Milosavljevic and Rosic keep their spots. Plans for the season are thrown up in the air though. Granada come in and bid £1.7mill for Lekovic, it’s accepted and despite me wanting him to stay, I think he’s on his way out.
MATCH DAY It is the nine changes from the team, that beat Kolubara. The players are urged to forget that the first leg happened and give it their all for the next 90 minutes. It takes the revamped team all of eight minutes to take the lead! Stankovic gets to the by-line and sends over a cross that’s met by Simin’s header. The header comes back off the cross-bar but falls at the feet of Mijatovic, he can’t miss and after the simplest of finishes it’s 1-0 Red Star!! Five minutes later and Simin hits the bar AGAIN! He’s put through by Milosavljevic but his dink over the keeper comes back off the bar and is hacked away. We have chance after chance after chance. Mijatovic blazes wide on three occasions and Simin finds the keeper when easier to score. Lublana wake up for a moment and Laci brings parity on the night when he meets a cross from the left and sends his header back across goal!! 1-1 on the night but 5-1 on aggregate. Everything settles down and as we take control again. The ref calls time though, and we go in all square.
SECOND HALF The players are told that the performance is not good enough. We should be ahead and the finishing isn’t good enough. The team talk works it’s wonders and we take the lead just over five minutes after the restart. Mijatovic doubles his tally with a magnificent volley from Duric’s cross from deep. It’s a scissor kick from 13 yards out that’s past the keeper before he even knows it’s been hit!! 2-1 Red Star! Five minutes later though and Lublana begin to turn the game on it’s head. First, Catar manages to get between THREE defenders to turn home the equaliser. Then, barely five minutes later, Catar again outstrips the defence and lifts his shot over Rosic!! Just like that it’s 3-2 Lublana!! The players are given an on-field roasting and with just under twenty minutes to play Simin brings the scores level again. All the work is done by Mijatovic as he bursts through the back line and gets one-on-one with the keeper. His shot is beaten away but drops into the path of the following up Simin. He’s faced with an open goal and will never score an easier goal! 3-3 with time to get a winner. There’s no more action though, We finally managed to shackle Catar and they have no other threat. FINAL SCORE 3-3 on the night and 7-3 on aggregate.
It’s not a good performance at all really. Mijatovic is the standout player, two goals and an assist makes his man of the match, but the others haven’t done enough to warrant keeping their place in the starting line-up.
The draw for the final qualifying round of the Europa Conference league, sees us play AIK of Sweden. It should be a close game, albeit one we should be winning. First though, we have the simple matter of third placed Cukaricki in the league. They play a standard flat 4-4-2 what we’ve struggled to break down previously with our 4-1-3-2, as a result we’re switching it to a narrow diamond. Mijatovic comes in at the point of the diamond, with Ilijin and Lorenzi back up top.
MATCH DAY Partizan have already played and needed an 87th minute winner to overcome Macva Sabac 4-3 and continue with 100% start to the season and it takes a full twenty minutes of withstanding Cukaricki pressure before Red Star take the lead. Twice the ball is worked into the area and twice it’s hacked away, third time’s the charm though as Rahman gets to the left hand by-line, pulls the ball back and finds Campar seven yards out. His shot beats the keeper at the near post and against the early run of play Red Star take the league!! 1-0!! We start to enjoy ourselves with Stanic firing over after some great inter-passing and then Cardoso have an effort saved on the line from a Bulat corner. Half time comes and Red Star have turned the game around and go in a goal to the good.
SECOND HALF The front three have struggled in the first half and it’s targeted team talk designed to fire them up. IT WORKS A DREAM!!! Five minutes after the restart Mijatovic shoots through a crowded area to make it 2-0 after another fantastic pull back by Rahman in the area!! Campar goes close again on the hour but his free kick, destined for the top corner, is clawed away by the keeper to safety. The second goal takes all the wind out of the Cukaricki sails and we run out comfortable winners. FINAL SCORE 2-0 RED STAR!!
This was our first real test in the league and after a slow start, grew into the game and came out the other end with ANOTHER dominant win to keep the 100% start going!!
We’ve already played FIVE games this month and still have another FOUR to play!! Up next is AIK of Sweden, in the final qualifying round before the Europa Conference League Group. Once again we SHOULD be winning this, but there’s some tired legs in the squad. The strongest eleven, the one’s that started the last game against Cukaricki, are given extra days rest in the hope that they’ll be fresh for the AIK game, we can always rotate them out for the league game in between legs. We manage to navigate our way through the four days between games without injury to the resting players, and make the trip across Europe to Sweden with the starting XI intact. If anything, it gets stronger as Milosavljevic returns from injury and straight back into action.
MATCH DAY After adopting the narrow diamond to success against Cukaricki, we’re back to the traditional flat midfield three that has served us well so far. AIK have won their last four games in this competition, but it’s Red Star that start the brighter!!!! Bjekovic, Stanic and Ilijin all combining in the 8th minute to feed the ball to Lorenzi on the edge of the area. He looks up and bends a sweet left-footed shot around the despairing AIK keeper and in!! 1-0 Red Star. We keep the pressure on and Lorenzi has a chance to double the lead on 20 minutes. He’s put through by Bulat but his shot, across the keeper, comes back off the inside of the far post and into the waiting arms of the keeper! The second goal comes less than a minute later though!! Bulat stands over a free kick on the left of the AIK area. There’s jostling in the area amongst the Red Star attackers and the defence, there needn’t be though, as Bulat lifts his effort over the wall and in off the crossbar!!! 2-0 Red Star! AIK are carved open AGAIN on the half hour. Ilijin feeds Lorenzi but his first time shot this time comes back of the NEAR post and away to safety!! AIK finally figure out a way to keep us out and the half time whistle brings a momentary respite to their busy defence.
SECOND HALF There nothing much to say, other than well done & carry on. So that’s what I say. The AIK players must have had their ears bent during half-time though, they come out on the front foot and ten minutes after the restart get a goal back. It comes from their first bit of sustained pressure and a cross from their left wing. The far post cross is misjudged by Rahman and Widman has a simple nod-in to make it 2-1 Red Star!! The game settles back down into the routine from the first half. Red Star keep the ball without doing too much with it, and AIK defend stoutly keeping us at arms length. Lorenzi has another chance with 20 minutes to play, but completes his hat-trick of woodworks instead, as his header back across goal skims the crossbar on it’s way over!! Mijailovic comes on the replace the fading Milosavljevic but AIK seem happy to the score as is. The second half is called to an end with no goals in it. FINAL SCORE 2-1 RED STAR!!
We dominated. In possession (56%), in chances 17 to 6, shots on target 6 to 2, and most importantly, in the scoreline. Whilst 2-1 isn’t as comprehensive as I’d have liked. It’s a lead that we bring home for the second leg.
There’s just THREE DAYS between games this time round, so changes are having to be made. Iddrisu Baba replaces Bulat and Mijailovic and Stankovic replace Campar and Stanic. With four days between the Macva Sabac and the return leg against AIK I’ll have a chance to rest any of the others that need it then. Olympiakos come in with a £2.4million bid for Mijatovic that’s accepted, he’s primarily a winger and/or a striker (and not particularly goods at either). It’ll be a boost for the bank balance AND extra wage available in the budget.
MATCH DAY We’re favourites, and once again start the game believing we are. Mijailovic has the ball in the net after just eight minutes!! VAR takes a look at it though and rules it out for offside!!
Macva seem content to keep us at arms length and hold on to the point they start with. We don’t get another chance until the half hour mark when Ilijin snatches at a shot and sees it pulled wide. Half time arrives not a moment too soon. The players are told, in no uncertain terms, that their performance isn’t good enough.
SECOND HALF A quick tactical change to the narrow diamond, and Mijatovic coming on to replace Stankovic, and the players come back out for the second half. Once again though, Macva seem happy to spoil the game and leave with a draw. We don’t manage another chance until the hour mark and that sees Mijatovic flash a shot wide. With twenty minutes to play Ilijin hits the post after good work by Mijatovic. Twice more we hit the woodwork, but there’s no breakthrough to be had and the game finishes 0-0!!
It really was a dire game to watch. One shot on target from nine attempts underlines why we didn’t win, but the fact that we only created 9 chances with an xG of 0.51 is probably the real reason!! We get lucky elsewhere though, Partizan can only play out a score draw away to Radnicki Nis, and we stay locked on level points.
We’re welcoming AIK to Rajko Mitic next and will have the one goal advantage going into the game. After resting some players last time out, it’s back to the strongest eleven possible now. Real Valladolid join Olympiakos in bidding for Mijatovic, he’s on his way by the looks of it. The fans are confidant in our ability to see out the tie. We’ll need our shooting boots on though, especially after last game.
MATCH DAY As is the norm for ourselves, we start on the front foot. When we start to come against some of the bigger European teams in this competition, it’s going to be interesting to see how we cope. Ilijin has the ball in the back of the net in the 9th minute but he was in an offside position as Campar flighted in his free kick from deep. We stay on top and when Lorenzi clips the post in the 32nd minute it’s our 4th shot on target, it’s already an improvement on last match!! The ref calls time on the first half and with the scores still level there’s an air of nervousness in the crowd.
SECOND HALF Nothing seems to change after the restart. We’re controlling the game without overextending ourselves. Simic comes on the replace the misfiring Ilijin around the hour mark and takes just five minutes to have the ball in the net!! It’s a long shot from Milosavljevic that’s only parried down by the AIK keeper. Simic is on his toes though and reacts quickest to the lose ball, prodding it home from a yard out!!…….THE FLAG IS UP THOUGH….VAR IS TAKING A LOOK AT IT……
AND IT’S RULED OUT!! We continue to make the most of the game with Bulat striking a free kick just over the bar. The final twenty minutes pass by though and it’s back to back scoreless draws, although I’m happier with this one than the last!!
Stat-wise, we were a lot better than last match. 63% possession and 21 chances with 9 on target. The draw was enough, and it’s a totally professional job done that sees us into the Europa Conference League Group Stage.
Time for the draw for the Conference League groups. We’re seeded first, so SHOULD miss the big boys at least. Group A is ours and joining us are Anderlecht, Bestikas and St Johnstone. It could have been worse, not by much, but it could.
We’ll need to get results against Bestikas if we have ambitions of topping the group, although I’d be foolish to overlook Anderlecht.
The last match of August is an away trip to Napredak Krusevac. They’re in the bottom half with just the one win so far this season. It’s a chance to finish the month on a high after two successive 0-0 draws. The match comes too soon for Ilijin, he’s still not recovered enough for a starting berth. His spot goes to Simic instead and Stankovic comes in to replace the tired Milosavljevic.
MATCH DAY Last time we juggled the match day squad, we ended up with a poor performance and and goalless draw. It looks like it’s not going to be another goalless performance though! Simic get’s his first goal of the season as he hammers a first time shot past the keeper in just the 6th minute!! It’s a period of Red Star possession that pulls at the Napredak formation and creates the space for Simic to shoot!!……HOLD ON THOUGH…….WAS HE OFFSIDE?….
NO!!! NO HE WASN’T!!! 1-0 Red Star! We don’t get this match all our own way though. Napredak grow into the game after the early Simic goal and start to keep a little of the ball. They pull level in the 25th minute!! A Kocic free kick into the Red Star area causes absolute chaos, and when the ball is eventually hacked away it falls at the feet of Jacob Burns. He takes one touch to steady himself on the edge of the area and launches a shot into the bottom corner. 1-1 and plenty of game left to play!!! The goal seems to stun us, and Rosic has to come to the rescue. He races off his line to beat the Napredak strike-force to a long ball over the top. Just past the half hour mark we have a chance to retake the lead! Lorenzi looks like he was bundled over in the area. VAR takes a look and awards the penalty!! Stanic steps up to take the kick……Right footed…….BUT IT FLIES HIGH OVER THE BAR!!!!!! The score remains at 1-1! The ref calls time on the first half and although we have had the better of the game, with more possession and chances. It’s still anyone’s game and we’ll have to step up a gear in the second half.
SECOND HALF The players are left with absolutely zero doubt that I’m not happy with the first half performance. It takes all of TWENTY SECONDS for them to rectify my anger. Rahman receives the ball straight from kick off and set off down the line. He plays a ball forward to Simic and he, in turn, pulls the ball back to Campar. Campar takes a touch into the Napredak area and slides the ball into Lorenzi’s path. The defence are stunned at how quick we’ve attacked and it’s a simple finish for Lorenzi!! 2-1 Red Star!
Napredak again, shake off the nerves and come back at us in search of another equaliser. Just after the hour mark they pay for their endeavours. Campar picks the pocket of the midfield before spotting the run of Stanic from deep. His lofted pass into his path is perfect and Stanic’s first time shot, across the keeper, rebounds of the far post and in!! 3-1 Red Star!! Bulat and Simic both have chances in the closing stages to seal the deal but the Napredak keeper is equal to the task this time. The ref calls time and it’s a much improved second period that sees us run out 3-1 WINNERS!
It took a half time rollocking to the players to buck them up a bit, but the second 45mins was a lot better and we deserved the win. The day gets better and better as news reaches us the Partizan have LOST their first game of the season, and we go three points clear at the top of the table.
August has been a busy old month, but one we’ve finished unbeaten AND having qualified for the Europa Conference League group stage.
September is looking A LOT more reasonable. Just the five games including the European group stage opener against Bestikas. We’ve managed to get ourselves a three point lead at the top of the table, and the four league games in September are all winnable.
Things might be looking good!!
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