Ognjen Bjelicic had words of praise towards Maltese football as his presence with Ħamrun Spartans is garnering interest among the Serbian media.
Bjelicic, 25, has been a remarkable addition to this Spartans’ side as his defensive contribution has paid dividends in helping his team reach the play-off round of the UEFA Europa Conference League.
A former Serbia U-16’s international, Bjelicic came through the ranks of the Serbian giant – Red Star Belgrade, as he featured for their U-19’s side before stepping onto senior football.
Last season, Bjelicic was a regular fixture at Radnicki Nis as he played 20 games including once against Partizan Belgrade in a 4-0 defeat.
Prior to his experience at Radnicki, Bjelicic played also with a hometown club called FK Sindjelic Belgrad, in Serbia’s second tier after not given a first-team chance at Red Star Belgrade.
In an interview with Serbian portal, Telegraf, Bjelicic rebuffed any special feelings for this game as a former Red Star player.
“Maybe it is a special game for me because I am from Serbia and played against Partizan Belgrade many times, but I no longer have an additional feeling about the rivalry,” Bjelicic admitted.
“I am just focused on myself and on helping Ħamrun Spartans write more history for Maltese football.”
Although Partizan are order to close a stand of at least 2,000 seats for their game against Ħamrun Spartans, the Serbian fans are expected to create a hostile environment for the Maltese side.
Nonetheless, Bjelicic is not phased by this as he points out that many of his team mates have already experienced such situations.
“We play against Levski Sofia in front of a sold-out stadium, but my players stayed calm and composed,” Bjelicic explained.
“We have players who played in the Brazilian Serie A in front of 70,000 and 80,000 people such as Vinicius who was on the books of Botafogo and Flamengo.”
Bjelicic was even less phased with Levski Sofia’s rematch appeal as well.
“There was some anxiety, but there was no need for it,” he said.
“It was two days after the game and we had many points in our favour and just this one against us.
“Since there is no VAR, the referee becomes the first responsible for it and therefore it was just his fault.”
Ħamrun’s relentless performances against the likes of Velez Mostar and Levski Sofia have reflected positively on the image of the Maltese game.
The same Maltese game on which Bjelicic himself had doubts before accepting the offer to join the Spartans.
“I was the first to have some concerns about the level of football here in Malta,” Bjelicic admitted.
“I had a few friends playing in Malta already but only when I came here I could see what the Maltese game had to offer.
The training sessions filmed with the drones, professional equipment and a quality recovery period – these are not things that you take for granted in half of the Serbian clubs.”
Bjelicic described Maltese football as fast and direct, with not much time to think on the ball.
“With two or three passes, you already playing upfront,” the Serbian defender said.
“A lot of players are coming from the rest of Europe along with the local talents and if you manage to assemble a balanced side, you can play good football.
“Obviously, that depends on the coach then and I think the three teams making it into the third round is a reflection of the quality there is in Malta.”
One of the teams who made it into the third round was Gżira United, who qualified at the expense of Bjelicic’s former side Radnicki Nis.
“Radnicki Nis thought it would be easy and just like they eliminated Hajduk Split, Gżira eliminated them as well – the level here it’s not exactly what the people think,” Bjelicic underlined.”
A particular aspect which did not go unnoticed to the Serbian media was Gżira’s laments on both the training pitch and the game pitch they played on.
Bjelicic said that during his time at Radnicki, the pitch was good before it started to deteriorate in his last six months at the club.
Speaking about the stadium itself, he said that they could not play beyond the second round there because it was not up to UEFA standards.
“In Malta, the pitches are either artificial or hybrid, due to the climate and weather conditions, and there is almost no natural grass as well,” Bjelicic added.
“The championship is played at a hybrid pitch, at the National Stadium, which is very perfect for us.”
Asked about starting as underdogs for the Partizan tie, Bjelicic considers it as an advantage
“It is certainly an advantage, because people do not understand that football is played everywhere and not only in just the strongest football nations,” Bjelicic explained.
“I tried to explain that to many of my friends and in the first round we showed what we can do.
“In all three rounds, facing difficult teams, we started as outsiders and we managed to progress every time. We don’t have any pressure unlike Partizan whose current situation makes this game highly important for them.”
Partizan Belgrade are at the back of a 95th-minute winner against Mladost in the Serbian championship, following their fatal draw against AEK Larnaca in the Europa League.
“I watched both games against AEK Larnaca and Mladost,” Bjelicic said.
“It would be naive to say that Partizan Belgrade are not good, because they are one of Serbia’s biggest clubs. It’s just they are going through some crisis, which is pretty much normal in football.
“They have very good players individually, especially the front three, but it seems they cannot click collectively.
“Then again, we are speaking about players who are playing in a higher level than us and who are earning a good amount of money – they remain a good team.”
Bjelicic is upbeat about his team’s chances of making it through the group stages of the Europa Conference League.
“Given our journey so far, I think we have a pretty good chance of making it. But the same goes for them, they have a good chance too,” Bjelicic said.
“I think we have a bigger advantage due to their current situation as a club, which might not inflict on the performance at the end, but it could be significant for our chances.
“We are going there to compete and we won’t make it easy for them.”