Saturday 17 March 2018

Jovanovic ready to fight

Ian Herbert

Tonight's opponents go by the nickname of 'The Romantics', but forgive Liverpool if they don't share in the heartwarming cup story as they travel into Europe a full seven weeks earlier than they would have wanted.

The first 7.0am check-in of the season at Liverpool Airport sent Roy Hodgson's side on their way into Europa League third qualifying-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.

However, 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 admits he is as much in the dark as anyone, even though his own country and tonight's opposition share a border. The 29-year-old has had the benefit of European qualifying-round experience, having actually been in situ for his previous club Standard Liege the last time Liverpool 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 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 a move to Real Madrid 18 months ago because their then sporting director Predrag Mijatovic would only offer him a one-year deal.

"At the time, 99pc of people said they did not understand why (I refused)," Jovanovic said. "I thought if I went it would be as an ordinary player -- but that if I stayed, I would be where I felt good, where I was a star, in Belgium. I will never go somewhere where I only play a small part."

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 has taken the plunge anyway.


His winning goal for Serbia against Germany at the World Cup was in keeping with his reputation as a high-calibre player and he also scored five for his nation in World Cup qualifying.

Jovanovic operates down the left and though his YouTube presence is dominated by some stunning free-kicks, it is his strong running with a ball at his feet that has earned him a soubriquet of 'The Snake'.

Jovanovic has no intention of challenging Steven Gerrard -- who was with Jamie Carragher and Joe Cole among those players who did not travel east yesterday -- as the set-piece specialist.

But there are some challenging encounters ahead with his former Liege team-mate Marouane Fellani, whom he has followed to Merseyside, and his compatriot Nemanja Vidic, whom he may encounter at Old Trafford on September 19. The more immediate obstacle tonight may be Rabotnicki's Brazilian Wandeir, so attached to his adoptive nation that he has taken Macedonian nationality and who may drop back into a three-man midfield to make room for compatriot Fabio Silva. 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. (© Independent News Service)

Rabotnicki v Liverpool,

Live, Setanta Ireland, 7.45

Irish Independent

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