For Marko Grujic it was the perfect draw.
When Liverpool and Red Star Belgrade were paired together in the Champions League group stage back in August, the young midfielder could barely contain himself.
“It was the one I was hoping for, of course,” Grujic tells Goal exclusively ahead of Tuesday's Group C clash in the Serbian capital. “My two favourite clubs playing together in the Champions League? Perfect!”
Grujic will not be in Belgrade for the game, but he attended the sides’ meeting at Anfield a fortnight ago, catching up with friends from his former club as well as his current Reds team-mates. Currently on loan at Hertha Berlin, he will watch this game from his apartment. His parents, meanwhile, will be at the Rajko Mitic Stadium.
“I got them tickets from Red Star,” he reveals. “But I have some Serbian friends who will be in the Liverpool end as well, because they are Reds. I can’t lose really, can I? Whatever the result, people will be happy!”
Grujic, of course, knows all about what it’s like to play for Red Star. A boyhood supporter, raised on tales from his father about their European Cup winning team of 1991, he joined their academy aged 11, making his first-team debut as a 17-year-old. Having been signed by Liverpool in a £5 million (€6m/$6.7m) deal in January 2016, his last act at the club was to help them to the Serbian title.
“They were always my club,” he says. “When I played for them it was the proudest moment of my life.”
Liverpool were comfortable in winning 4-0 at Anfield two weeks ago, and know a victory in the return would put them in a strong position to qualify for the knockout stages.
Grujic, though, has a warning for his Reds colleagues. The Marakana, he says, is not for the faint-hearted. The walk from the dressing room to the pitch, for example, is one of the most intimidating in football.
“Yes, it’s pretty crazy!” he laughs. “That part of the stadium is very old, of course. It was left like that even when other parts have been developed, because of the history and tradition it carries. They didn’t want to change it.
“In a way, that is similar to Anfield – you don’t want to lose that feeling. It’s unique and that’s what you want.
“To walk down there and to see the police in the tunnel and the graffiti and all these things, it is pretty incredible. And then you can hear the noise from the fans above. For an opposition player I can imagine it will be quite intimidating as well; I will be interested to speak to my Liverpool team-mates after the game to see how they found it. It will be a special experience for them, for sure.”
This footage going round of Red Star Belgrade's Marakana stadium tunnel walk is enough to give you nightmares for weeks on end! 😲https://t.co/bhXzIOwpQG — Alex Jackson (@alexkeysjackson) September 19, 2018
Red Star head into the game without a win from their opening three group matches, and having lost their last two by an aggregate score of 10-1. In a group containing Napoli and Paris Saint-Germain, as well as Liverpool, they were always likely to find life tough. Their goalless draw with Napoli on Matchday One, however, suggests that they are a stronger proposition on home soil than they are away.
“That’s why I’m looking forward to the game, to be honest,” Grujic says. “The atmosphere is one thing, but Red Star held Napoli to a draw, so they can play as well. It won’t be easy for Liverpool.
“The two away games, yes they were outplayed, but to draw 0-0 with Napoli is a good achievement. They are really good defensively, especially around their box, and especially in the Marakana they seem to be able to find a bit extra, maybe from the supporters and the atmosphere. I am not expecting a lot of goals this time.”
Grujic is able to put into context just how big an achievement it is for Red Star to be competing with some of Europe’s biggest names on this stage. Champions of Europe in 1991, their greatest team was broken up almost immediately as the former Yugoslavia was ripped apart by war. Red Star have not made it past the qualifying round since their title defence in the 1991/92 campaign.
“I was not born for the European Cup win,” Grujic says. “But my father and my brother told me all about that team and the great players, all the great nights. I watched all the videos.
“That was such a fantastic team, and of course after that final the players all went to Europe’s top clubs. They made history, but that was around the time that European football changed dramatically with the Champions League and all the money. Unfortunately for teams like Red Star, it was impossible for them to keep up. They had to sell their players, and of course they struggled as a result.
“For the club, just to be back on this kind of stage now is an achievement. It’s been so long, they are just happy to be here and having some of the best players and teams in Europe coming to Belgrade to play against them. Their dream was to come back to the Champions League.
“Even in the two games against PSG and Liverpool, they lost 6-1 and 4-0 but the supporters are not angry or disappointed with the team. They understand. They are still supporting the team and enjoying the games. They will for sure make a special atmosphere.”
As for Grujic himself, these are important times. He returns to full training on Tuesday after the ankle injury which curtailed a promising start to the season with Hertha. He says he has settled in well to life in Germany, and that he is in regular touch with Liverpool via Julian Ward, the club’s loan pathways manager, as well as Klopp himself.
“The manager will text or call after a good game, which is good,” he says. “He talks a lot about Germany and the Bundesliga, because he is still very interested in that of course. His son lives in Berlin too so we have spoken about the city and things to do there, for example.
“He was joking with me because Hertha took a point off Borussia Dortmund earlier in the season, and he was not too happy about that! He was happier when we beat Bayern Munich, of course, and now we have been drawn against them in the DFB Pokal as well so he’s already looking forward to that – hopefully I can play in that and make him happy with the result!”
As for the long term, the aim is simple. A Hertha player for now, his dream is to be a Liverpool player, a proper Liverpool player, in the future.
“That hasn’t changed,” he says. “I would love to one day be a Liverpool player. That is why I have gone on loan, to prepare my body and my mind for the highest level, and we all know that the highest level is clubs like Liverpool, Barcelona, Real Madrid.
“My dream and my ambition is to be part of Liverpool going forward, hopefully next season and beyond, but I know I have to work hard and deliver on the pitch with Hertha this season first.”
On Tuesday night, though, he can put his feet up and enjoy the game. And one thing’s for sure, his phone will be blowing up as soon as the final whistle blows in Belgrade – whatever the result.
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