Europa League • Red Star Belgrade-AC Milan Preview: Into the Fire

Milan travel to Serbia to face league leaders Red Star Belgrade, or FK Crvena zvezda. Red Star are undefeated in their league this season, but are controversially and gratefully without their fans. Milan slipped into second this past weekend after being stunned by lower table Spezia in a very demoralizing performance. Milan fans will be watching for a reaction in this match, particularly with the big Derby just three days later. Pioli faces possibly some of his toughest decisions yet, with some players needing rest and yet a win so crucial for mentality at this point in the season. Even in the absence of the fiery Red Star fans, Milan are heading into the fire.

What Rajko Mitic Stadium looks like with fans

Red Star Belgrade have some of the most notorious hooligan fans in the world, and have for over 30 years. In May of 1990, the year before they won their singular European Cup, their fans battled modern day Croatian Dinamo Zagreb fans in one of the most well known moments of the beginning of the Yugoslavian wars. Former Milan star Savicevic played for Red Star at the time, while former Milan director and star Boban played for Dinamo Zagreb. Jovan wrote a great piece for this blog on the two former Milan players.

Red Star's ultras at the time were led by the infamous Arkan, a criminal who also led a paramilitary group called Arkan's Tigers, which was made up of mainly Delije, or Red Star Ultras. This group went on to participate in the ethnic cleansing of Bosnia, Herzegovinia, and Croatia by personally killing hundreds and hundreds of civilians. Former Milan coach Sinisa Mihajlovic's parents were actually captured during the war and would have been killed, were it not for the war criminal Arkan's fondness of the former Red Star player. Sometimes it pays to have friends in low places, and the Delije have certainly been a lot of low places when it comes to football ultras.

Boban battles in the Dinamo-Red Star match that became a war

The Dinamo-Red Star match-turned-riot was not only the beginning of a war, it became iconic for photo of a football hero, Zvonimir Boban. While fans and police clashed in the stadium, the game was called off and most of the players hurried into the dressing room for safety. But not Boban. He witnessed police brutalizing Zagreb fans in the clash and was himself attacked, so he stayed and fought the police himself. Boban has always stood up for what he believes in, he is still missed at Milan. Likewise, the Delije have always caused problems since this time period at home and abroad.

Which brings us to this match. Red Star's fans have appealed to Serbian authorities to allow fans to attend this match at 30% of the stadium's capacity. Serbian officials have denied any fan attendance due to COVID-19, and the fans are not happy. Additionally, in the theme of Derby week, where Inter overtook Milan on the table ahead of the league Derby, Red Star's current coach is former Inter player Dejan Stankovic. This match has both a lot of passion and a lot of history behind it.

Red Star fans want to remove the restrictions so they can have carnal relations with AC Milan

Red Star beat Radnicki Nis 1-0 on Saturday in the Serbian Super Liga. For that match, Stankovic lined up Ivanic; Borjan, Gajic, Pankov, Degenek; Vukanovic, Gobeljic, Srnic, Falco; Rodic and Sanogo. Stankovic will be missing Katai who is out with a long term thigh injury, and Nikolic is in doubt with an ankle injury. Red Star were runners up in Group L, with three wins, two draws, and a loss. However in 21 league games, they have won 19 and drawn only two, with no losses this season. They will have home pitch and momentum on their side.

Pioli will be missing Brahim Diaz to injury, and apparently Calabria, as well, who seems to have a niggling injury. He will also be missing Hauge because... well,  I still don't understand why. After this past weekend's match, we could use all of the Europa League magic we can get. Rebic is back in training and will be available for this match, which is very positive. Despite everyone saying that the team are focused only on the match ahead, Pioli will be considering fitness levels and players he will need three days later for the Derby when he makes his choices for this match.

Who starts? The one who's not yet match fit, or the one who is older and tired?

After over-performing for a year now, Milan have lost three matches so far this calendar year. Fans act as if we are going to be relegated, when in fact, we are in the knockout stage of the Europa League, and only one point behind Inter in Serie A, who are not in Europe at all. Which is still better than anyone expected this team to do. There is much talk about the team, the mentality, and individual players in the media and from fans now, all of which I would love to have the team silence with a solid performance on Thursday. This game is the first of a run of four very difficult matches in 11 days. Sure, Milan get to avoid the notorious Delije. But anything less than a stellar performance against Red Star, and Milan fans will throw their own team into the fire. 

This post inspired by the music of The Prodigy's "Firestarter"

Europa League Round of 32
Red Star Belgrade vs. AC Milan 
Thursday, February 13 • 18:55 CET (12:55 EST)
This match can be streamed LIVE on CBS All Access in the U.S.

Europa League • Red Star Belgrade-AC Milan Preview: Into the Fire Europa League • Red Star Belgrade-AC Milan Preview: Into the Fire Reviewed by Elaine on 1:23 AM Rating: 5
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