Pandev the diva in dangerous team of worldly wanderers
Published 24/03/2011 | 05:00
SO, what about the Macedonia class of 2011 then? They will certainly be afforded more respect than the team which derailed Mick McCarthy's charges twice in the late 1990s, a group that didn't take too kindly to their country becoming a byword for mediocrity in the Irish lexicon.
Even though it was intended in the context of the Irish display, the Macedonians took umbrage, and have revelled in the role of underdogs during their brief international football history, which stretches back to 1993, two years after the nation declared independence from Yugoslavia.
Expectations have moved on, however, and, with comparative novices Montenegro making impressive strides and the similarly sized Slovenia tasting a World Cup experience, the demands on Macedonia have increased.
But it's been a persistent case of one step forward and two steps back in recent years.
A promising start to their 2010 World Cup campaign came to nothing, with manager Srecko Katanec walking out after a dispute with star player Goran Pandev.
The Inter Milan man has plenty of ability and scored the winning goal for Inter in their remarkable comeback against Bayern Munich in the Champions League last week.
The problem for Macedonia is that the undoubted star of this generation has the reputation of being a bit of a diva. That dispute with Katenec was followed by another hissy fit after just two games of this campaign.
Macedonia were unlucky to fall to an injury-time defeat in Slovakia on the opening day when they were reduced to 10 men.
Four days later, they drew 2-2 at home to Armenia, a disappointing result as far as the locals were concerned, although they did equalise in the 96th minute after going 2-1 down at the start of injury-time.
Alas, Pandev was none too impressed with criticism from the terraces and duly stayed away from the following month's routine win over Andorra and the loss at home to Russia.
He's over it now and back this week. Bad news for Ireland, even though he hasn't scored a competitive goal for his country since September 2008.
Pandev can blow hot and cold, though, an interesting sort who joined Inter as a free agent at the beginning of last year after a four-month dispute with former club Lazio that ended in the courts. Lazio claimed that Pandev wanted to leave, and froze him out.
He argued that his treatment was in violation of his contract and won his case, even collecting €170,000 for emotional distress. Five months later, there was a Champions League medal in his back pocket. A nice brand of therapy.
Irish assistant boss Marco Tardelli is well aware of Pandev's strengths. "He is very dangerous, especially on set-pieces. We watch the DVDs with Pandev, but also the other players who are very strong. We have studied everything."
Dynamo Kiev defender Goran Popov got a mention from Tardelli. His name might ring a bell; he was on the receiving end of Mario Balotelli's studs in the incident which led to the Manchester City striker's sending-off last week.
Coach Mirsad Jonuz has assembled a squad with plenty of stamps on the passport.
In the Irish camp, Aiden McGeady is regarded as a Christopher Columbus-type trailblazer for sampling life in Moscow. The Macedonians have a squad full of wanderers, drawn from far and wide.
Twelve different leagues were represented in the initial selection for this trip, with a couple based in Azerbaijan, and another two in Cyprus.
Midfielder Velice Sumulikoski, dubbed the 'Balkan Steven Gerrard' in his homeland, has spent time in England with Preston and Ipswich, without making much impact.
That hardly says much for the grandiose nickname, but teams from this part of the world have little reason to mock Macedonia. They've drawn twice with England this century, and beat Scotland in a World Cup qualifier.
The scorching heat of Skopje will make the June return a tougher test than Ireland can expect this Saturday; Macedonia have a flaky enough record on their travels.
Still, they impressed observers with their approach in Slovakia at the beginning of this campaign and, minus Pandev, pushed Russia hard in the second half of their meeting on Macedonian soil. They probably gave Dick Advocaat's men a rougher welcome than Ireland did.
Underestimate them at your peril. After all, Ireland have been there, and created the T-shirt.