6 April ~ Avram Grant's appointment as coach of Partizan Belgrade in January was one of the season's more unusual moves. The Israeli replaced outgoing Aleksandar Stanojevic, who was dismissed following a reported breach of contract and subsequent fallout with the club's president, Dragan Duric. As far as inheritances go, Grant's was pretty enviable: a ten point lead at the top of the league and a cup semi-final berth had already been secured. "Is this the easiest job in football?" mused the Bosnian journalist Sasa Ibrulj.
Having led Partizan to two straight league titles, as well as the Champions League group stages in 2010, Stanojevic was unsurprisingly popular. His stock may have been hurt by elimination to Shamrock Rovers in the final qualification round for the Europa League back in August, but the team's domestic form had held firm. At the mid-season interval they had a substantial ten point advantage over rivals Red Star. The tone was set pretty early for Grant. Within a couple of days of his appointment, Serbian tabloid Blic ran a survey asking readers whether they thought the Israeli was the right choice of coach. Only 22 per cent believed he was, with more than half suggesting that Stanojevic should still be in charge.
If the initial reception was a little chilly, things only got worse. Despite having won thirteen straight league games prior to Grant's arrival, his first two matches both ended in draws. The second of those, a goalless stalemate with Sloboda Sevojno, saw him subjected to abuse from his own supporters and calls for the reinstatement of his predecessor. "Football is a game of goals and we failed to score, but the players put in a great deal of effort and the fans should learn to respect that," he suggested afterwards through his interpreter. Critics of his apparently conservative tactics were also informed that "all big teams play with a solitary striker these days".
Two victories followed, as Partizan's clear superiority re-established itself. This all boded well for their next task: the short 500 metre hop to the Marakana to face eternal rivals Red Star in the first leg of the cup semi-final. Red Star have had to play second-fiddle to their rivals recently. But after ploughing through 16 coaches (not to mention a glut of presidents) in seven years, they finally appear to have found a semblance of stability in Robert Prosinecki. "Optimism is now on our side," the former Croatian international claimed as Grant's side dropped points, allowing Red Star to cut the lead at the summit to six points.
Red Star's recent policy of cutting ticket prices has resulted in a number of bumper crowds at the Marakana. That feelgood factor, combined with Partizan's wobbly form, generated an electric atmosphere in the famous old arena for the cup tie. Despite all their possession and obvious individual ability, Partizan lost 2-0, heaping further pressure on their beleaguered coach. The second leg is in a week's time. Even if Grant and his men can find some resolve and take the league title, his critics will say it is the least he should be achieving. Given the lead they held at the midway point of the season, only humiliating their city rivals and booking a return to the Champions League group stages will be seen as progress. Marcus Haydon