BELGRADE: Red Star Belgrade players celebrate their third successive and record-extending 31st league title after the football match between FC Rad and FC Crvena Zvezda (FC Red Star) at the “King Petar I” stadium in Belgrade on May 29, 2020, as Serbia’s first and second division resumed today behind closed doors, after it was stopped due to the COVID-19 pandemic in mid-March. — AFP

BELGRADE: Red Star Belgrade clinched their third successive and a record-extending 31st league title with a 5-0 win at city rivals Rad on Friday as Serbia’s first division resumed after it was halted due to the COVID-19 pandemic in mid-March.

Celebrations were muted, however, as the game was played behind closed doors and the 1991 European Cup winners, who won the continent’s elite club competition on this day 29 years ago, were unable to share their joy with the fans.

With three rounds of matches remaining, Red Star have 72 points from 27 games, 14 more than closest rivals Partizan Belgrade who are at home to Mladost Lucani on Saturday.

Up to 1,000 fans will be allowed to attend games as of next weekend when Red Star are at home to Radnik Surdulica, with the Serbian government continuing to ease lockdown measures.

Second-bottom Rad were on the back foot throughout and fell behind in the 24th minute, when Mirko Ivanic converted a penalty after Aleksa Vukanovic was fouled just inside the area.

Centre back Srdjan Babic doubled Red Star’s lead in the 30th from close range after a nicely-executed set piece and Vukanovic added the third six minutes later with a crisp shot into the far corner from 10 metres. Australia defender Milos Degenek headed in the fourth from an El Fardou Ben Nabouhane corner in the 57th minute before the lively Vukanovic tapped in Ivanic’s fizzing low cross in the closing stages.

Red Star’s head coach and the club’s former international midfielder Dejan Stankovic, who won the 2010 Champions League with Inter Milan, was delighted.

“All credit goes to the players, the staff and the fans, who put wind in our sails every step of the way,” Stankovic told Arenasport television. “We’ll have some champagne tonight, we’ve earned it.”

Meanwhile, Premier League chief executive Richard Masters said on Friday that fans could be allowed to attend top-flight matches in the 2020-21 season on a “phased basis”.

The Premier League plans to resume the 2019-20 campaign on June 17 following the coronavirus lockdown. But the remaining 92 fixtures will be played behind closed doors to minimise the health risks of football’s return in a country badly hit by the pandemic. The prospect of playing the next season with no fans is unappetising for the Premier League and Masters suggested it could be possible to being back supporters at some stage.

“No one knows when matches will move away from the behind-closed-doors model and it is right to have contingency plans in place, but there is optimism at the Premier League and at clubs that we will see fans back in the stadiums next season and it may happen on a phased basis,” Masters told Sky Sports News.

“Hopefully it will be a huge morale boost and that is what we’ve been working towards. “We’ve got some incredible fans in this country and we all know the Premier League as we know and love it won’t be fully back until we have fans back through the turnstiles.” The biggest concern for ‘Project Restart’ is another wave of the virus, which could lead to the competition being suspended again. With that in mind, Masters said it was crucial clubs agreed on a plan for what would happen if the season had to end early before games resume.

But he would not be drawn on whether an unweighted points-per-game model would be used in decide the final table in the event of the season being abandoned. “We need to have plans in place so that we go into the start of the season knowing that if it can’t be completed, what then happens,” Masters said. “(But) I’m not going to give away any of the details of the private discussions we are having with our clubs.”  The video assistant referee (VAR) system is set to be used in the remaining matches, but Masters said it would be done remotely rather than from the officials’ usual base at Stockley Park.

“VAR has its own social distancing issues but we think there is a way of completing the season with VAR, so absolutely our intention is to complete the season with VAR in place,” he said.

“The hub itself could be a problem, so if you can’t do the hub you have to do it remotely, and that’s what we’re looking at.”

Liverpool are two wins away from clinching their first English title for 30 years, but they could be forced to play at a neutral venue when the trophy is within reach on police advice.Police chiefs are concerned about the safety risks of Liverpool fans gathering outside Anfield or any other stadium their team are playing at.

Masters said talks with the police about neutral venues for some games are on-going, but he hopes Liverpool can at least have a trophy presentation. “They (the police) have legitimate concerns but we think we can mitigate some of the issues they’re trying to deal with,” he said.

“Ultimately, we want the season to be played out on the pitch and we’re discussing a number of options to make it as fair as possible. “We’ll do everything we possibly can to deliver a trophy presentation. It’s really important to mark that moment and to give the fans that memory to mark it.” —Agencies