By Zoran Milosavljevic
LONDON (Reuters) - Former continental champions Red Star Belgrade extended their interest in Europe beyond Christmas for the first time in 26 years after a 1-0 home win over Cologne on Thursday sent them into the Europa League knockout stages.
Red Star, who won the European Cup in 1991 and reached the latter stages the following season, finished second in Group H behind Arsenal who crushed BATE Borisov 6-0.
More than a quarter of a century of European failure which went hand-in-hand with Red Star's financial decay ended in front of a capacity 52,000 crowd in the Rajko Mitic stadium after forward Slavoljub Srnic struck a 22nd-minute winner.
Red Star coach Nenad Milojevic was overjoyed with the accomplishment and praised his team for a spirited effort.
"This generation deserved to qualify for the knockout stages and it's just reward for all the energy the players and the fans have put in," he told a news conference.
"We're the only team to have reached the last 32 from the preliminary rounds and we advanced from a tough group after playing a total of 14 games in the competition."
Srnic beat Cologne keeper Timo Horn with a crisp shot from 10 metres after midfielder Nenad Krsticic released Milan Rodic with a defence-splitting pass and the left back squared it into the heart of the penalty box.
Roared on by their frenetic faithful on a cold evening, Red Star held on in the second half as the visitors piled on the pressure and the joyous home fans set off fireworks after the final whistle.
Srnic was delighted and said a goal in next Wednesday's Serbian league derby at champions and bitter city foes Partizan would cap the opening half of the season.
"I've missed a lot of chances in both domestic competition and the Europe League so I am overjoyed that I scored today when so much was at stake," he told reporters.
The match was played under tight security amid fears of violence after 5,000 Cologne fans arrived in the Serbian capital but was devoid of crowd trouble, notwithstanding a flurry of flares lit by both sets of supporters.
(Writing by Zoran Milosavljevic; Editing by Christian Radnedge)