Red Star Belgrade sent shockwaves across the UEFA Champions League earlier this month when they defeated Liverpool 2-0 on Matchday 4. Not only did Red Star knock off last season’s finalists, it was the team’s first-ever victory in the competition since winning the European Cup back in 1991.
Red Star hadn’t participated in Europe’s top-tier club competition in 26 years but slogged through a trying qualifying campaign in order to reach the group stage this season. Their reward? A group of death featuring Liverpool, Paris Saint-Germain and Napoli.
Canadian men’s national team goalkeeper Milan Borjan, who has started all four of Red Star’s Champions League matches thus far, reiterated the club’s unfortunate luck in the draw.
“We got the group of death,” Borjan told Sportsnet, with a humorous exclamation. “Three of the biggest clubs in a row.”
Borjan, 31, practically stood on his head through the opening four games of the group stage, as he faced 98 shots in total. Liverpool’s Alisson, by comparison, has seen 95 shots in 11 matches across all competitions this season.
Borjan has conceded 10 goals but that tally would be a lot higher if it wasn’t for some stunning saves from the Canadian international.
The win over Liverpool was even more surprising because of what transpired at Anfield on Matchday 3. The Reds cruised to a 4-0 win and heavily outplayed Red Star. Manager Jurgen Klopp named a rotated side for the return match in Belgrade, which proved costly because the Serbian giants took the game to the Merseyside club.
“Maybe in the two games against PSG and Liverpool away, we respected the clubs too much,” Borjan admitted. “Then we woke up and thought ‘why are we respecting them?’ We’ve got to fight for our own team. We try to do our best, and for me, I try to do my best to try and not receive any goals and to play at a high level, to make a good result.”
Borjan stayed true to his word in the second match versus Liverpool. He kept a second clean sheet in four matches, though it was a team effort as the defence only allowed four shots on target.
The win for Red Star was also significant given the rampant discussion surrounding a potential European Super League. The proposal was recently shot down by UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin, although there is no denying the widening gap between Europe’s elite and the rest of the field.
The addition of automatic slots for the big five European leagues also means that traditional sides such as Red Star face a harsher qualifying route.
Red Star’s Champions League campaign began on July 10 in the first qualifying round. They had to overcome four different opponents across eight matches in a seven-week span before finally reaching the group stage.
“All the way around Serbia – in the Balkan leagues – it’s really hard to get into the Champions League,” Borjan stated. “But when you get there, it’s even harder … [Balkan] football has to improve. The football improves every year. I hope that the football improves a lot, because we’ve shown that when you believe in something, you can do it. The club can believe, and so I think they can achieve the goals.
“It’s really hard to play against those clubs because they’ve got a lot of experience in Champions League. A lot of players with big budgets and everything. But we go fight for each other, try do our best and get the best result. Our coaching staff has been analyzing the games, so at home, we have big support from the fans … You have to fight for it to try and get out of the group.”
When the group stage draw was complete, the common theme when describing Red Star was “Belgrade will be a tough place to go.”
That is an understatement.
Red Star’s Champions League matches have attracted sold-out crowds of more than 55,000 fervent supporters in each game. There’s no doubting that the fans have been a huge factor in the win over Liverpool and the 0-0 draw with Napoli on Matchday 1.
“It’s unbelievable,” Borjan said, almost at a loss for words. “People have to come and see it. It’s something unreal. They’re some of the best fans in the world. They give us huge support on the field, off the field, everything. They’ve been waiting for so many years for us to get into the Champions League.
“It’s very important [for the fans] to follow us in every game. We were suspended a few games, so we couldn’t have fans at PSG and Liverpool, but now we go to Napoli to play there and we’ll have support there.”
Borjan mentioned that around 10,000 to 15,000 Red Star fans will be in Naples for this pivotal clash against Napoli on Wednesday night. The Stadio San Paolo is one of the loudest stadiums in Europe, so adding thousands of travelling supporters will only intensify the decibels.
Red Star enters Matchday 5 in last place in Group C, but just two points behind Napoli for the top spot. Grabbing at least a point before hosting PSG in the final game in early December could help the former European Cup winners qualify for the round of 16.
Whatever transpires, Borjan is just happy to be at Red Star. His family are loyal supporters of the club and he says that he was accepted from his first day with the team.
Now Borjan will be hoping to add to Red Star’s already brilliant Champions League campaign.