Partizan Belgrade coasted to another title.

By Vladimir Novak in Belgrade
Partizan Belgrade more than deserved to defend their Serbian league title. They led from start to finish, securing the trophy five rounds before the end of the season.

It was Partizan’s 21st league title, although some of their performances were far from impressive and they scored an average of 1.9 goals per game. Indeed their limitations were exposed in the UEFA Cup group stage, which they finished with no points from four matches. But at home, they did enough to dominate a campaign without a serious rival.

The “Black & Whites”, were guided by novice coach Slavisa Jokanovic. Not only were they consistent, but, just like last season, their foreign players made the difference. Playmaker Moreira (a Portuguese citizen from Guinea-Bissau), holding midfielder Juca (Brazilian) and striker Lamine Diarra (Senegalese), the league’s top scorer, showed again that it was a good move of the club to sign them back in summer 2007.

The defence too did a good job, too, with only 14 goals conceded in 31 games at time of writing. Goalkeeper Mladen Bozovic (number two in the Montenegro national team) set a league record for 916 minutes without conceding. Central defenders Nenad Djordjevic, Srdja Knezevic and Goran Gavrancic, who arrived during the winter break, as well as right-back Ivan Stevanovic and left-sided defender Ivan Obradovic (a regular in the Serbia national team), performed well and made a big contribution.

The loss of attacking midfielder Zoran Tosic, who moved in the winter break to Manchester United, passed by virtually unnoticed, thanks to solid displays from 17-year-old Adem Ljajic (who also signed with Manchester United, but stays on loan until January 2010) and especially the strong performances of Nemanja Tomic (21), another product of the club’s excellent youth academy.

Even central midfielder Ljubomir Fejsa bounced back in the spring with solid performances. The Under-21 international arrived last summer from Hajduk Kula, where his form had been excellent, but he struggled to adapt at Partizan.

Partizan also did the Double, just as last year, beating second division Sevojno 3-0 in the Cup Final.

It goes without saying that now the main target is to qualify for the Champions League. Fans and media believe that with the new format this might be easier to achieve than in the past years, but a lot will depend on whether the club reinforce the team with a couple of quality signings; especially as Diarra wants to leave and Obradovic’s transfer to a big European club is as good as certain.

At the same time on the other side of the hill (the stadiums of Belgrade arch-rivals are within five minutes walk) Red Star were going through the biggest crisis in the club’s history. After losing the Cup semi-final to second division Sevojno, they were even in danger of missing out on a place in Europa League.

But European qualification wasn’t Red Star’s biggest problem. With debts of 22.3 million euros, the club are facing bankruptcy.

Chairman Den Tana, the second president this season, resigned at the end of April, head coach Cedomir Janevski was forced to leave after the Cup debacle, players were not being paid and sports director Ilija Ivic even had to rush to the airport to persuade Bernard Parker (from South Africa) and Awal Issah (Ghana) to stay in Belgrade, just as they were set to escape the chaotic situation.

Red Star, who don’t even have a main sponsor at the moment, recovered to take third place and still had a chance to finish second. A group of former players also began an initiative to save the club, with an appeal to the government for help.

In contrast to the rather poor level of football in the domestic league, the national team is not only on course to qualify for the World Cup, but they also impressed with excellent performances, attacking football and a new self-confidence. Everyone is agreed that coach Radomir Antic, who was appointed in August last year, deserves the credit for their upturn in fortunes.