The Yugoslavian Prva savezna liga season resumes on Friday after its winter break with FK Mladost Apatin taking on FK Crvena Zvezda while the remaining eight games take place on Saturday 2 March. However the resumption of the season has been overshadowed by the withdrawal of tenth-placed FK Zvezdara from the Yugoslav first division.
All to play for
With 17 games of the season having been played and 17 more still to come, FK Partizan are currently leading the table with 38 points, five ahead of rivals and current champions Crvena Zvezda. Also chasing down the leaders are FK Obilic (30 points) FK Sartid (29) and FK Vojvodina (28).
However, the champions will most probably come from one of the two Belgrade giants, Partizan or Crvena Zvezda. Indeed, a poll conducted of the remaining 16 clubs in the division was divided equally between the two teams.
Leading from the front
Interestingly, Partizan have won every one of their 16 titles having gone into the winter break as the league leaders, whereas Crvena Zvezda seem to respond to pressure. They have won the league on 22 occasions, but on only ten of those occasions have they led the table going into the winter break.
Although Partizan's five-point lead is far from insurmountable, they remain the favourites to be crowned champions come 1 June. However the key to the destiny of the title could well be the result of the Belgrade derby in ten weeks' time (24 April) and Partizan have home advantage for that game.
Keeping the status quo
During the winter break, the only player to have left Partizan was Vuk Rasovic, who joined Russian Premier-Liga side Krylya Sovetov Samara, with coach Ljubisa Tumbakovic insisting that his squad does not need strengthening in any case.
'Ready for the title'
"I am convinced we are ready for the title," he said. "We are not favourites just because of our current lead, but because of our overall performance and quality. We will play firm in defence, creatively in the middle and efficiently in attack." Partizan captain Sasa Ilic concurs. "We are a good team and certainly better then Crvena Zvezda, who are no doubt our title rivals," he said.
Goalkeeper Dejan Pesic and defender Stevo Glogovac have left Crvena Zvezda and the club will rely heavily on the goals of striking duo Mihailo Pjanovic and Branko Jelic. The team are also hoping for great things from Yugoslavian Under-21 midfield player Dragan Bogavac.
"The essence is to start by winning our first match and so gain a psychological stability," coach Zoran Filipovic said. "We are much stronger than in the autumn and we will clearly show that. Most important is to eliminate the instability that we have shown in the first half of the season and benefit from Partizan's mistakes."
Obilic, Sartid and Vojvodina are all vying for a place in next season's UEFA and Intertoto Cup competitions, with the latter two also in the Yugoslavian Cup semi-finals.
'Ready for the UEFA Cup'
"We have brought two new defenders, Miroslav Savic and Ede Visinka," said Obilic coach Ratko Dostanic. "Defence was our weakest point. Now we are ready for the UEFA Cup. Also we will not let the two leaders have an easy time in the race for the title."
Beating the drop
With the re-start of the season, many clubs are also fighting the fear of relegation, especially given the fact that the difference between sixth-placed FK Hajduk Kula and the bottom club Apatin is only ten points. The teams that probably have most to fear are Apatin, FK Radnicki Kragujevac, FK Rudar Plevlja and FK Cukaricki.
'Pretty difficult situation'
"We are in a pretty difficult situation," said Kragujevac coach Srdjan Bajic. "Many do not believe in us any more. Preparations in Greece should have added to the physical readiness of the players. We will see how much we have succeeded. The first match we play is against Partizan in Belgrade, which is not so good. We will look for our chance at home."
Cedomir Djoincevic, who took over the reigns at Apatin recently, believes firmly that his club can escape relegation. "If I did not believe in Apatin, then I would not have taken over," he said. "Half of the league is in fact facing the same relegation fear. We have to work a lot and get back our confidence. We are playing our first match against Crvena Zvezda and then we will start."
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