It's that summer time good, good feeling... after another successful season by both of our main clubs, in football and basketball. In football we won the Serbian domestic title and regained our Champions status for the first time since 2005/06 and 2006/07. This is no small feat by a manager, Vladan Milojevic, who has stolen all of our hearts and minds. We won our 30th league title and added a third star to our crest, something that many of us have never witnessed. Milojevic's current record at Crvena Zvezda in two full seasons in all competitions reads... 113 matches played, 83 won, 20 drawn, and 10 lost. Seven of the 10 losses have come in Europe (Krasnodar away, Arsenal home, CSKA Moscow away, PSG home/away, Napoli away, Liverpool away) with a winning percentage of approximately 75%, which is just unreal for a coach who came in and needed to revitalize the club and the playing staff, especially given the circumstances he was working under, at least initially. In the league, we have only tasted defeat twice under Milojevic in a span of 74 games (Napredak away last season and Cukaricki away this season).
This upcoming season, Vladan and his men will be targeting a third straight domestic league title, something only the legendary Milan Miljanic has achieved in the history of the club. That fact alone illustrates the effect Milojevic has had on the club as a whole. He will also be targeting a third straight European competition group stage appearance, something that was truly not expected of anyone before coming here. In his quest for glory, the following 30 players have been called up to Austria for pre-season. Some of them are still with their national teams for competitions this summer and will join in the next 1-2 weeks.
Goalkeepers: Milan Borjan (Canada - Gold Cup), Zoran Popović, Miloš Gordić, Aleksandar Stanković.
Right Fullback: Filip Stojković, Milan Gajić (Serbia - U21 Euro).
Central Defender: Vujadin Savić, Nemanja Milunović, Radovan Pankov, Srdjan Babić (Serbia - U21 Euro).
Left Fullback: Milan Rodić, Marko Gobeljić, Marko Konatar.
Central Midfielders: Branko Jovičić, Dušan Jovančić, Miloš Vulić, Goran Čaušić.
Right Winger: El Fardu Ben, Aleksa Vukanović, Erik Jirka, Jug Stanojev.
Creative Playmaker: Marko Marin, Lorenzo Ebecilio.
Left Winger: Mirko Ivanić, Veljko Simić, Milan Jevtović, Željko Gavrić.
Forwards: Ričmond Boaći, Milan Pavkov, Nikola Krstović.
Players that have left the club or look set to leave the club this summer are:
GK Nemanja Supić (retired), CM Nenad Milijaš (retired), AMC Dejan Meleg (set for sale after poor loan), WR Jonathan Cafu (loan ended), DC Rashid Sumaila (loan ended), DL Stefan Hajdin (set for sale after poor season), ST Dejan Vidić (set for loan after past season), DC Ze Marcos (released), ST Dejan Joveljic (sold to Einchart Frankfurt for 4 million euros), DL Aleksa Terzic (sold to AC Fiorentina for 1.5 million euros).
Currently, the ambitions are very high and we've really regained the majority of our side from the past two title winning seasons. The only new addition thus far in the summer transfer window has been Radovan Pankov, the central defender coming from a very successful one year spell at Radnicki Nis. He is a product of the Vojvodina youth academy and featured for Russian Premier League side FC Ural before coming back to Lalatovic's side this past season. He formed a very good partnership with Bondarenko at Radnicki, and will look to push out one of Savic, Milunovic or Babic for a starting spot in central defense.
Players that have also been added to the Austrian pre-season squad after impressing during the first phase of pre-season in Zlatibor are players who featured heavily for Graficar Belgrade this past season, our affiliate that clinched promotion to the Prva Liga Srbije (Serbian 2nd tier right below the Jelen Super Liga). These players are goalkeeper Aleksandar Stankovic, left full back Marko Konatar, left winger Zeljko Gavric and right winger Jug Stanojev. It was also expected that our best player at Graficar last season, Veljko Nikolic, our young and creative diminutive central #10 would join the squad, but he received an injury recently and will be out for the next 2 months after having surgery to his hip. He will miss pre-season with the first team, which is a huge shame because he was widely expected to be one of the few youth players to make the first team. Lastly, Nikola Krstovic, the top scorer of the Montenegrin Premier League last season for FK Zeta, joins our forward line as the 20 year old looks to impress after Boaci and Pavkov remain as our sole remaining forwards after Dejan Joveljic's 4 million Euro sale to Einchart Frankfurt. It has been heavily rumored that we are on the verge of adding the striker, Tomane, from Portuguese side C.D. Tondela as we look to bolster our options in attack.
As of right now, the younger players that have impressed in pre-season thus far are Zeljko Gavric and Nikola Krstovic. There's also a fierce battle for the third goalkeeper spot between Milos Gordic and Aleksandar Stankovic, both of which are very young. Stankovic has been the captain and goalkeeper for Graficar Belgrade the past two seasons and has grown accustomed to first team football, and it remains to be seen if Graficar will retain him for this upcoming season in the Serbian second tier or if he will be named the third goalkeeper and if Gordic, the #1 for the FKCZ U19's who played in the UEFA Youth Champions League this season will take over the starting spot there as our youth squadron looks to progress both players.
Currently, the players are in the midst of finding their feet on their 3rd day in Austria (see clip below).
While in Austria, we will face the following sides - FC Windischgarsten (June 19th), TBD (June 22nd), Cypriot Premier League side Apollon Limassol (June 25th), Russian champions Zenit St. Peterbsurg (June 29th) and Austrian second tier side FC Blau-Weiß Linz (July 1st). Our first round of Champions League qualifying commences on July 9th or July 10th against our old customer from last season, FK Suduva Mariampolje, the Lithuanian Champions. For those that don't remember, we knocked out FK Suduva last season in the second qualifying round for the UEFA Champions League having beaten them 3-0 at home and 2-0 away. However, the team will need to be highly concentrated as last year at this stage FK Suduva knocked out a much more fancied APOEL Nicosia, the Cypriot champions 3-2 on aggregate. The good news is that our first qualifier is in Mariampolje while the return leg will come a week later on July 16th or July 17th at the Marakana. The draw for the second qualifying round will also be coming out on June 19th, Wednesday. It was great that we got FK Suduva in the first round of qualifying as we could have gotten CFR Cluj, the Romanian champions or Ferencvárosi TC, the Hungarian champions, both of which would been a bit harder to overcome, especially so early in July and in the first qualifying round.
As the players gear up for another season, currently the best 11 based on last season seems to be - Borjan, Stojkovic, Savic, Milunovic, Rodic, Jovicic, Jovanvic, Ben, Marin, Ivanic, and Boakye. However, we saw towards the end of last season that certain players definitely reached and went past their peak as a bit of a dip in form was the cause for our poorer spring than normal. It will be interesting to see where Filip Stojkovic, Vujadin Savic, Nemanja Milunovic, Mirko Ivanic, Richmond Boakye, Branko Jovicic, and Dusan Jovancic all end up as all of these spots are up for grabs given the past 3-4 months of play. As it stands, the only players to have assured themselves of a place in the starting 11 as of today are Milan Borjan in goal, Marko Marin as a creative midfielder, and El Fardu Ben as a right winger. It has also been rumored that Milan Jevtovic has been seen as reborn left winger after impressing towards the end of last season and it'll be interesting to see if he can potentially make that spot his own as one of the greatest criticisms of our system last spring was that the inclusion of Ivanic, Marin and Ben made the team too narrow and there was no natural winger providing width. This often times led to a lack of movement and a lack of ideas in the final third as we looked to Marin to spring a creative pass to start the creation of a play.
Outside of the the playing squad, things are progressing nicely in regards to the stadium as the pitch is being relayed as we speak per UEFA's requirements. In addition, the Western Zapad terrace is getting a makeover per discussions with UEFA over the past season. Lastly, progress continues to be made on the training infrastructure and recently stadium reconstruction plans were viewed as the club management narrowed down the construction ideas down to three choices. Typically I'd say this is another project that will really lead to nowhere, but over the past 2 seasons we have seen such improvements in our infrastructure, improvements that have not been made for 20+ years that I'm actually a believer in that the stadium will get reconstructed if we qualify for Europe again this season. The good news on the European front is that even if we lose in one of the Champions League qualifying rounds, we will be seeded for the remainder of the Europa League qualifying rounds, so there is no chance of us receiving an opponent from one of the top five leagues in the last couple of qualifying rounds for the Europa League.
Most opponents for the Europa League 4th qualifying round will be teams of a similar stature, and as such, we have a very realistic chance of qualifying for at least the Europa League this season, which I would still see as a huge accomplishment. As in the past years, if we lose in any round of Champions League qualifying (1st, 2nd, 3rd or 4th) we will enter the Europa League in the subsequent round. Thus, once again the key will be to get past the first three rounds of Champions League qualifying, as even if we lose in the 4th round of Champions League qualifying we would automatically enter the Europa league in the group stage (the subsequent round) thus guaranteeing us an additional cash increase and at least six more fixtures in Europe. This year, we will be seeded for the first two rounds of Champions League qualifying, but we will be unseeded in the third round and that is where things will get tricky because some of the teams we can face in the third round are AFC Ajax, Celtic, Dinamo Zagreb, FC Copenhagen, BATE Borisov or FC Astana. This all depends on the seeded sides making it through the first two rounds.
Overall, we have reason to be optimistic, but we will need to be cautious as exerting the maximum is what I believe is required to achieve a similar level of success as last season, and that for me is making the group stage of at least the Europa League. It will be interesting to follow the summer transfer mercato as the team prepares over the next three weeks in Austria. Let's sit back, beer in hand, and enjoy the summer pre-season with a view to the upcoming games.