FK Partizan could be forgiven a spring in their step when they return to Belgium to face KRC Genk in the first leg of their UEFA Champions League third qualifying round tie on Tuesday.
After beating FK Shkëndija 5-0 on aggregate in the last round, Partizan now find Genk barring their route to the play-off round but they can take heart from the fact it was on Belgian soil last summer, against RSC Anderlecht, that the Serbian titleholders secured progress to the 2010/11 group stage on a night of high drama.
Partizan's play-off victory was achieved in heart-stopping fashion as they surrendered a two-goal advantage in a 2-2 draw that mirrored the first-leg result in Belgrade, setting up a penalty shoot-out where Anderlecht missed three kicks to hand victory to Aleksandar Stanojević's team and a return to the group stage after a seven-year absence.
It was an unforgettable night that showed, in the words of Partizan's two-goal scorer Cléo, that "anything is possible". Having scored once in the first leg, the Brazilian – now playing in China for Guangzhou Zongyi FC – struck early in each half in the Belgian capital. He said: "I think we all gave our lives in that game. We gave everything that we had and left it there on the pitch. I think our sacrifice was worth it though, as no one thought we could beat Anderlecht and progress to the group stage of the Champions League."
Partizan had already beaten FC Pyunik and HJK Helsinki but, according to Mladen Krstajić, went into the tie as underdogs. "We knew that Anderlecht were a very strong, very skilful team, with good players. They have their tradition but it is what happens on the pitch that counts and we wanted to go further."
Krstajić, 37, has since retired and taken the role of Partizan sporting director but on that topsy-turvy Brussels evening, his role was to transmit calm to his less experienced colleagues. "I had it in my head that I was the oldest player and my main task was to lead the younger players and help them concentrate and play their game," said Krstajić, who had a penalty saved in the shoot-out. "We were happy with what we achieved not only for Partizan and our fans, but for Serbia as a whole. The feeling was great when we arrived in Belgrade at the airport, and slowly realised what we had done."
After Anderlecht had fought back to 2-2 through Romelu Lukaku and Guillaume Gillet, Partizan hung on for 49 minutes, extra time included, to earn a shoot-out. Coach Stanojević remembered: "I had told the players that they needed to survive extra time. When it came to penalties we are a mentally strong team, we have strong individuals, I was sure that we could go further." Stanojević will hope that mental strength shines through once more against Genk.
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