Champions League – Red Star Belgrade v Tottenham Hotspur

The Champions League group stage resumes this week with 16 matches over Tuesday and Wednesday. We aren’t going to cover them all, instead focusing on two matches from each day that are the closest matchups of the week, as well as have the biggest impact on the group tables heading into the homestretch.

As they have been from day one of the Group Stage, Manchester City remains the favorite to win the tournament overall, and have all but won Group C (they have over a 99% chance of claiming first in the group). As we covered last week, they are one of three clubs currently with a perfect record thus far, and a win at home against Atalanta on Wednesday will clinch the group officially.

In our final preview of Matchday 4 features the clubs competing for second place in Group B behind Bayern Munich. Tottenham Hotspur is second with four points, while Red Star Belgrade is in third with three points. Their reverse fixture shifts the action to Red Star Stadium in Belgrade, with action kicking off at 9:00pm CET (3:00pm EST) on Wednesday night.

As we’ve done previously when previewing group stage matches, we’ll take a look at how the clubs are performing back in their domestic leagues, as well as their longer-term history in UEFA competition. Then, we’ll take a look at the clubs’ history and how this match will determine the group’s outcome.

Without further ado, here’s a look at the clubs:

Domestic League Performance

We’ve taken note of Red Star on a couple of different occasions over the past year. They were our first two-time claimant of the “Small Club of the Week” for their performance in last season’s Champions League, but they also attracted our attention because of their stellar performance in the Serbian SuperLiga. Between their Yugoslav and Serbian competitions, Red Star boasts 30 league titles – including the four of the past six SuperLiga titles – and 24 cup titles, making them the most successful club in Serbian (and Yugoslavian) history.

Thus far this season, they are again at the top of the league, with a 13-0-1 record. They have a league-leading 33 goals scored, and tie for the league lead with a +23-goal differential. They are in the midst of a seven-match winning streak, where they’ve outscored their opponents 20-4, and appear poised to again finish at the top of the league.

Tottenham Hotspur are one of the “Big Six” of the English Premier League, though they have not won a league title in the Premier League era. Last season, they finished a distant fourth in the league – 26 points behind second place Liverpool and 27 points behind champions Manchester City – one point ahead of Arsenal to claim a return to the Champions League group stage.

So far this season, the Spurs have struggled a bit, with a 3-4-4 record through 11 matches, placing them in 11th place. They have not won a Premier League match since September, going 0-2-2 in their last four matches. Despite the poor performance thus far, they have a positive goal differential, though they did lose 3-0 to Brighton Hove & Albion, a club that finished two points clear of relegation last season.

European History

Red Star Belgrade entered Champions League this season during the first qualifying round, defeating Sūduva Marijampolė, HJK Helsinki, Copenhagen, and Young Boys, compiling a 2-5-1 record along the way. The Spurs, on the other hand, qualified for the group stage by finishing fourth in the Premier League.

Red Star has found success in European competition, and remain the only club from Eastern Europe to have won the Champions League, which they did when it was still called the European cup in 1991, defeating French club Marseille on penalty kicks in the final. They were also the runners-up to Borussia Mönchengladbach 1978-79 UEFA Cup (now Europa League).

During the group stage, they have struggled, including a 5-0 loss to the Spurs three weeks ago in London. Their lone win came against Olympiacos on Matchday 2, but their only goals in the group stage came in that match as well. If not for the poor performance of Olympiacos, Red Star would be struggling to stay alive in the group stage, as they have the worst goal differential in the group.

Tottenham hasn’t fared much better, and are currently five points behind Bayern Munich in the group. They have their own five goal loss, losing 7-2 to Bayern on Matchday 2, and are responsible for Olympiacos’ only point thus far in the group stage. They look nothing like the club that played Liverpool in the Champions League Final last season, but another big win in Serbia this week will still place them in the driver’s seat to advance to the knockout rounds, so they hope to repeat the performance from three weeks ago and put Red Star Belgrade away.

This Matchup

Including their match three weeks ago, the Spurs hold a 2-0-1 advantage over Red Star Belgrade, though the only other matchup was in the 1972-73 UEFA Cup. Tottenham is definitely the stronger club by all appearances, and the last time the clubs met, this was readily apparent.

As such, according to FiveThirtyEight, the Spurs are favored in this one, winning just over half (51%) of all simulations of their Wednesday match. Red Star Belgrade likely gets some bonus percentage due to playing host, and they did win their only other home match thus far in the group stage (that 3-1 win over Olympiacos on Matchday 2), but with only a 27% chance to win, they are heavy underdogs.

Overall in the group, the Spurs are favored to finish second behind Bayern Munich, doing so three-quarters of the time in the FiveThirtyEight simulations, leaving Red Star to clamor for a spot in Europa League, which is pretty much a coin toss between them and the Greek squad. Should things go as expected tomorrow, it is likely that the Matchday 6 rematch in Greece will determine who will move on to the Round of 32 in Europa League, which would be a great outcome, all things considered, for either club.

I honestly don’t see a path to victory for one of my favorite Eastern European clubs, but if Red Star Belgrade manages to continue on in Europa League, that will be enough. One thing that would improve their chances of doing so – failing finding victory in this long-shot match – would be to not widen their goal differential any more and grabbing a point with the draw. Not only would that allow them another few weeks of life for second place, it would also give them a potential three-point lead over the Greeks for third, increasing the chances that their European season doesn’t end in December.

But one match at a time, and I’ll be pulling for Red Star Belgrade in this one.

Until next time…

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