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Real escape with hope of progress

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Unsettled Red Star face tough task of staying in Europe

BELGRADE, Sept 27 (Reuters) - Serbian champions Red Star Belgrade face an uphill task to avoid UEFA Cup elimination on Thursday amid growing speculation that coach Dusan Bajevic will step down in they fail.

Red Star need to overturn a 2-0 first-round, first leg deficit against Czech champions Slovan Liberec in Belgrade to qualify for the group stage of the competition.

Failure to do so would extend to 14 the number of years the 1991 European Cup winners have not survived in Europe past the winter break and possibly persuade Bajevic to accept an offer from Greek side Panathiniakos.

'I will answer that question (about staying on at Red Star) after the match with Liberec,' Bajevic told a news conference on Wednesday.

'We have a very poor result from the first leg but I believe we also have a fighting chance of turning things around and reaching the UEFA Cup group stage,' he said.

'We will certainly do our best and the team will need to be mentally strong in order to wipe out a two-goal deficit. We will have to take risks and keep a clean sheet, which is not easy.'

Bajevic steered bitter Athens rivals Olympiakos and AEK to a total of seven league titles before taking over at Red Star during the close season in a bid to steer them into the Champions League group stage.

However, a 3-1 aggregate defeat to AC Milan in the third qualifying round triggered media reports of his imminent departure that intensified after the Liberec defeat two week ago.

Red Star president Dragan Stojkovic, who recently sold seven internationals to ease the club's financial burden, hopes to keep the trophy-laden coach no matter what happens against Liberec.

'We have a firm contract with Bajevic and as far as I am concerned he will stay on as Red Star's manager although we are aware that other clubs want him,' he said.