Nothing less than full points enough for Macedonians
IT'S a big weekend for the locals here in Macedonia. Tomorrow, there is a general election. This evening, for the visit of Ireland, they re-open their national stadium.
The government have spent 900m denars (approximately €15m) renovating the King Philip II stadium.
It now has a capacity in excess of 30,000, and most of the mod-cons. The novelty value has increased hopes in Skopje that the venue can be filled for the visit of Giovanni Trapattoni's team.
Certainly, the hosts are pricing the game in a way that will be attractive; tickets are available for as little as €2.
If that can draw the punters in, then the Irish will face a hostile welcome when they leave their dressing-room, in direct contrast to the vibe around the city.
The locals have embraced their visitors, with even respectable looking restaurants belting out rebel tunes with the intention of dragging in green shirted passers by.
But what of the Macedonian players? They only arrived in their capital late last night after undergoing their preparations two and a half hours away in a mountain retreat.
For them, the brief tonight is simple. Nothing less than a win will do. Macedonia came into this campaign with ambitions of challenging for a play-off place. Already, it seems like a forlorn hope.
They have taken just four points from five games, and were in pretty bad form after their loss in Dublin in March.
Coach Mirsad Jonuz has taken a fair bit of flak.
Just like Trapattoni, he has a crucial player suffering with a groin problem.
While all the vibes are that Robbie Keane will play, there was a feeling here until last night that Dynamo Kiev defender Goran Popov would miss out.
He appeared to have been emphatically ruled out according to reports earlier in the week.
However, the tall left-back -- who commanded headlines earlier this year when he was on the receiving end of a reckless challenge from Mario Balotelli in the Europa League -- has fought back and is now expected to take his place in the team.
Should he wake up this morning feeling ropey and miss out, then Jonuz will have to reshuffle his defence with highly regarded Parma defender Stefan Ristovski a possible beneficiary.
The Macedonians ply their trade in a variety of nations around Europe. Inter Milan forward Goran Pandev is their captain and star man, but he was outshone in Dublin by Ivan Trickovski, who plies his trade for APOEL Nicosia. He is a target for new Rangers boss, Ally McCoist.
Two other Cypriot-based performers are likely to figure in the home rearguard. A question mark surrounds the identity of their net-minder, however. Edin Nuredinoski, who produced a hapless display in Dublin, may not figure here.
The Ethnikos Achna stopper was in panic mode any time an Irish player lined up a shot from distance, and Trapattoni would doubtless be offering shoot on sight instructions to his men if he is selected.
Macedonian media are split on whether he will be replaced, with Martin Bogatinov, who is on the books of Ukrainian outfit Karpaty Lviv, waiting in the wings.