Update (August 13, 2012) – In the return match, Red Star defeated Omonia 6-5 in penalty kicks to move on to the “playoff” round in the Europa League. I think it is a good strategy for Red Star, play for scoreless draws for 180 minutes plus extra time and then hope for the best in penalty kicks.
I attended the UEFA Europa League Third Round Qualifying Match between Red Star Belgrade and Omonia from Nicosia, Cyprus. It was a disappointing game with my scourge of soccer occurring, a scoreless 0-0 draw. Despite dominating the time of possession, Red Star must have had the ball around 80% of the time, they could not generate any real scoring threat with only one shot on target. Omonia, the most successful team in the history of the Cyprus league, was content to sit back and have the occasional counter attack. They were pleased with the draw in Belgrade and now await the return match in the Cypriot capital city of Nicosia.
It is nice to see Red Star in a European competition, even though the Europa League is not a prestigious as the Champions League, which Red Star won in that glorious season of 1991. They are a long way from that however, and it is a statement to how far the ex-Yugoslavian teams have fallen. They are now battling it out for the “scraps” of European glory, with the hundreds of minor clubs from the many small nations of Europe. Together, the ex-Yugoslavian teams were able to compete with the best teams, but today, with all separate nations, I don’t see any of them ever taking on the likes of Barcelona or Manchester United.
The match was basically meaningless because Red Star is still a long way from even getting to the group stage of the Europa League tourney. The qualifying rounds are quite complicated but I’ll try to explain them as best I can. For those of you who do not want the entire explanation, Red Star needs to win four rounds to get to the group stage of the Europa League.
First Qualifying Round – 54 teams play a home-and-away playoff to send 27 teams into the second qualifying round. Jagodina and Borac represented Serbia in this round with both teams losing.
Second Qualifying Round – The 27 teams from round one are joined by an new 53 teams from higher-ranked countries (UEFA ranks the quality of nation’s soccer association) or higher finishers in the lesser-ranked leagues. The 80 teams play a home-and-away round. Red Star and Omonia are 0-0 after the first leg of their series. The 40 winning teams move into the third qualifying round. All teams making it to the second round, get 90,000 Euros from UEFA plus the gate receipts from the game they host. In this second round, Red Star defeated Naftan Novopolotsk from Belarus 7-6 in aggregate goals, earning a 90,000 Euro bonus from UEFA.
Third Qualifying Round – An additional 30 teams from even higher-ranked leagues join at this stage the 40 qualified teams from the second round. Once again, a home-and-away leg is played and 35 teams move to the “Play-off” Round.Teams making the third round earn another 90,000 Euros. Red Star is currently in this round and will play at Omonia on August 9th.
Play-off Round – Another 41 or 43 teams join from even higher ranked league and teams that are knocked out early in the Champions League. The 74 or 76 teams once again play a home-and-away playoff and the 38 teams move to finally, the Group Stage of the Europa Tourney. This nets another 90,000 Euros from UEFA.
After playing a round-robin in the group stage, 32 teams go into a “knock-out” phase, and here teams start to earn bigger bonuses. Red Star last made it to the Group Stage in 2007-2008, but have not moved past the playoff round since then.
It all sounds to me a way for UEFA and the clubs to make money by all of these games. To make it through, Red Star would play an additional 20 games to win the whole thing. Serbia has a pretty good rank in UEFA’s system of coefficients. They are 16 of 53 associations, just behind the Ukraine and just ahead of Switzerland. Croatia is ranked 7 and the top ranking goes to of course Spain and the lowest ranking goes to San Marino. Cyprus is ranked 43.
It was pleasurable experience to watch the game last night, with a mostly full stadium and famous Red Star supporters Delije (heros) from the north section singing the entire game. Too bad the home team couldn’t give them a goal. It would be much more pleasurable if there was at least a regional league in the Balkans with the best players moving around to top clubs. More on that when the Serbian regular season begins shortly.