Red Star Belgrade 0-1 Arsenal: Gunners show character to win in Serbian cauldron through late Giroud strike
- Credit: PA Archive/PA Images
Arsenal performed a classic European smash and grab with a late goal from Olivier Giroud to beat Red Star Belgrade 1-0 in the frenzied Rajko Mitic Stadium.
The Gunners showed real character to escape with a victory after they were put under pressure for most of the match in an ear-splitting atmosphere that never once relented.
The backline here at Belgrade’s wonderfully intimidating stadium also known as the ‘Marakana’ in homage to the Rio original was a makeshift one.
Mathiue Debuchy, Mohamed Elneny and Rob Holding made up the back three with Francis Coquelin and Chris Willock forming the defensive shield. Reiss Nelson and Ainsley Maitland-Niles were the wide men as Theo Walcott and Jack Wilshere tucked in behind Olivier Giroud up top.
It was a night for youngsters and established ‘names’ to remind Wenger they are ready and able to step up for league games, not just ‘cup matches, whether they be in North London or behind the old Iron Curtain.
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Belgrade had sweltered in mid-afternoon temperatures as the city prepared for an important Bank Holiday on Friday as they got ready to mark 73 years to the day when they shook off Nazi rule.
It was hard to tell if it was because everyone was in a relaxed mood as they geared up for a long weekend in this surprisingly vibrant metropolis - or whether fans were genuinely excited at having the mighty Arsenal come to town.
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Either way the atmosphere generated at this gladiatorial amphitheatre of a ground was as impressive as anything this correspondent has encountered in nearly four decades of watching live football across four continents at places such as the Azteca and many more iconic global stadia – quite simply the noise was as ear-splittingly loud as anything I’ve experienced.
Every single Red Star Belgrade fan here sang their hearts out – for the whole game. With pyrotechnics banned the curve where the ultras congregate produced a giant mosaic of a cannon being disarmed.
But they didn’t just hold it up, they bounced up and down working themselves into a frenzy.
It was appropriate because after an early Theo Walcott shot blocked by home keeper Milan Borjan, Belgrade neutered any real threat the North Londoners had – while showing an attacking intent that fed off the crowd’s energy.
Was the energy because their team are on the rise again after years in the doldrums, riven by in-fighting, financial mismanagement and a lack of infrastructure stalling the traditional conveyor belt of talent from the part of the world?
Or was it something deeper? Is this club the embodiment of the proud Serbian nation, and if so is fans support at the Marakana a manifestation of a deeper love for their homeland – a homeland that has suffered a turbulent past – both recent and historic.
It was sobering enough to hear a local explain earlier on this glorious late autumn day in the Balkans that he had lived in four countries despite never moving from Belgrade, the city of his birth.
Back on the pitch Arsenal were pushed deeper and deeper as first Richmond Boskye hit the woodwork for Red Star moments before the half hour mark as the noise reached levels so loud you could not hear yourself speak. Even if your thoughts were telling you Arsenal’s backline were defending far too deep and affording time and space to the home team that would surely see them punished.
They nearly were two minutes later as Nemanja Radonjic – finding himself in acres of space – fired off a close range shot that Petr Cech did well to block to keep the score goalless at half time.
The second half started with another impressive display by the ultras – this time it was of Saint Sava, one of the most important figures in Serbian history. The fans certainly did him proud with their gigantic mosaic – which they held for a long five minutes.
On 54 minutes Cech pushed a Radonjic shot over the bar. 60 seconds earlier Nenad Krsticic shot straight at Cech.
Moments earlier Nelson had shown great pace down the flank crossing into the box, only for Walcott to miscue before Nelson had a shot pushed away by Borjan.
Alexsandar Pesic then broke only to unleash a powerful drive at Cech’s near post which he claimed comfortably despite the viciousness of the shot.
As the game ticked Red Star starter Vujadin Savic gave a reminder of the good old days –for it was his father Dusan whose goal knocked Arsenal out of the 1978-79 UEFA Cup.
And who could forget that immortal 1991 European Cup winners in a side peopled with football royalty such as Robert Prosinecki, Darko Pancev, Dejan Savicevic as well as that master of the dark arts Sinsa Mihajlovic – who could also play a bit too.
Did the memories of past glories spur on the home support to keep up their fanatical support – or was it their belief that UEFA have it in for them? There were certainly lots of conspiracy theories espoused in conversation with locals before the game – as well as the numerous graffiti plastered around the city telling the European bigwigs to go forth and multiply – in perfect English.
There was more grist for their mill after Rodic was sent off for hacking down an Arsenal player in front of the referee.
The crowd vented their fury as the noise rose to levels that actually hurt the ears. There was worse to come for the home side as Arsenal went 1-0 with five minutes remaining through a Giroud flick.
There was a split second of silence – the first in this grand ground – as the realisation sunk in before the travelling away fans celebrated dementedly.
It was the least they deserved for their loyalty – even if the goal was harsh on Red Stars efforts on and off the pitch.
As the referee blew for the final whistle the home fans – who were practically frothing at the mouth if the ones who had sneaked into the press box were anything to go by hurled abuse at the officials accusing all and sundry of being corrupt.
It wasn’t corruption or bribery. For once the result solely relied on the character Arsenal showed to win in difficult circumstances.