No love in Liverpool's Euro trip
Tonight's opponents go by the nickname of ‘the Romantics' but forgive Liverpool if they don't share in the heart warming cup story as they travel into Europe a full seven weeks earlier than they would have wanted.
The first 7am check-in of the season sent Roy Hodgson's side on their way into Europa League third qualfying round combat against FK Rabotnicki of Macedonia and the manager can only hope that they don't play, as well as sound, like a robotic dog from the former Soviet era.
It is a journey into the unknown for everyone except assistant manager Sammy Lee, who encountered the dog and pretty much tamed it when the Bolton Wanderers side he briefly managed sneaked through 2-1 on aggregate against Rabotnicki in the 2007-08 Uefa Cup.
Liverpool's illustrious European history has not included a flight into Macedonia and beautiful though the city of Skopje looked yesterday, Hodgson has taken enough experience with him — Martin Skrtel, Daniel Agger and Sotorios Kyrgiakos as well as Alberto Aquliani, Lucas and new Serbian winger Milan Jovanovic — to suggest that he knows there is potential for a mugging.
Jovanovic has had the benefit of European qualifying round experience, having actually been in situ for his previous club Standard Liege the last time Liverpool rather shakily progressed through a qualifier, in the Champions League, courtesy of an extra-time winner by Dirk Kuyt in an Anfield second leg two years back.
“I [only had] a few minutes against Liverpool that night [at Anfield] because I had just come back from an operation,” he explained. But even then, Jovanovic was widely perceived as the best player at the Belgian side he helped to two titles and he revealed yesterday that he had turned down the offer of a move to Real Madrid 18 months ago because their then sporting director Predrag Mijatovic would only offer him the limited security of a one-year deal.
“At the time, 99 percent of people said they did not understand why [I refused] — and that if Real call, you have to go,” he said.
“But I thought if I went it would be as ordinary player — but that if I stayed, I would be where I felt good, where I was a star, in Belgium. Real offered me just a one year deal with an option for two years.
“I said ‘four'. They said ‘no' and so I turned them down. Maybe they are the biggest club in the world, but I knew other big clubs would come. I will never go somewhere where I only play a small part. Why? It is better to be happy somewhere.”
Liverpool are not as big as they were back then — they have the FA and Premier League's refusal to grant Portsmouth entry to thank
for this European adventure — but Jovanovic is taking the plunge anyway — and, incidentally, happens to be well acquainted with the perils of jumping, having hurdled an advertising hoarding after clinching Serbia's first win over Germany in 37 years at the World Cup, only to discover there was a moat on the other side of it.
“I only saw the hole very late, and too late to change my decision, so all I could do was jump down!” he said.
Now on these shores, aside from disguised moats, he faces hurdles of a different kind, in challenging encounters ahead against former Liege teammate Marouane Fellani, whom he has followed to
Merseyside and his compatriot Nemanja Vidic, whom he may encounter on September 19.
“Vidic has much respect for Liverpool. He paid Liverpool a big compliment. But ok, we fight. We fight on the field but after the game we are big friends.”
The more immediate obstacle tonight may be Rabotnicki's Brazilian Wandeir, so attached to his adoptive nation that he’s taken Macedonian nationality and who may drop back into a three man midfield to make room for compatriot Fabio Silva, who already has five goals in the competition.
But an all-red first choice kit is really all Liverpool have in common with tonight's opponents who did not even have dressing rooms and amenities at their training ground three years ago.
A son of the former Balkan states knows better than to lack respect on the banks of the Vardar river, though.
“In modern football there is no such thing as an easy game,” Jovanovic said.