Saturday, September 02, 2006

Pandev finds his feet as main man of Macedonia

It is difficult being your country's one star, even more so when you have only just gained acceptance at your club. Macedonia FYR will look to Lazio's Goran Pandev for inspiration when they face England on Wednesday night, but even at this time last year he was regarded as, at best, a bit-part player. Most hurtfully of all, when Macedonians hailed him as a second Pancev, Lazio fans agreed.

Darko Pancev is the greatest player in Macedonia's history. He was top scorer in three successive seasons in the Yugoslav league, totalling 84 goals in that period, and converted the decisive penalty when Red Star Belgrade beat Marseille in the 1991 European Cup final. But then he joined Internazionale that summer, scored just once in 12 appearances, and was so abject that he was recently voted the worst Serie A player ever.

Pandev also moved from the former Yugoslavia to Inter, and he too struggled. He did not start a single game in Milan, and two years out on loan in the lower leagues at Spezia and Ancona brought a return of five goals in 42 games. When he joined Lazio as a reluctant makeweight in the deal that took the immensely popular Dejan Stankovic in the other direction, it would be fair to say that few of the biancocelesti were celebrating.

The comparison, though, is more than a little unfair. For one thing, Pandev was still a teenager when he joined Inter, whereas Pancev was 26, distracted by the war and seething at the skulduggery that had denied him the Golden Boot the previous season; a Cypriot player was falsely put forward as having scored 40 goals, when records suggested he had 19 (Pancev's accusations were confirmed, and he was finally presented with the award a fortnight ago).

For another, Pandev has now found his feet, hitting 11 goals in 22 starts last season, and became a cult figure with an extraordinary slaloming dribble and finish against Juventus. "It was a tremendous goal," said his manager, Delio Rossi. "He has really made a difference for us."

When Lazio faced relegation for their part in the calciopoli scandal, it even seemed possible he might join Arsenal, while the newly wealthy Dinamo Zagreb offered him €1.5 million (£1m) a season to go to Croatia. With Lazio's punishment confirmed as merely an 11-point deduction he has stayed in Rome, but Arsène Wenger's interest is understandable. Pandev is very much an Arsenal-style player, a forward-cum-attacking midfielder of great technical ability who can operate either centrally or on the left.

In Macedonia's opening Euro 2004 fixture, an impressive 1-0 win in Estonia, he played in an advanced midfield role, behind Ilco Naumoski of the Austrian Bundesliga side SV Mattersburg and Lokeren's Goran Maznov. The clubs they play for speak of Macedonia's shortcomings: Pandev aside, this is a squad drawn from Denmark, Ukraine, Poland, Cyprus and the odd lesser German club. According to Nikola Ilievski, Macedonia's coach when England won 2-1 in Skopje three years ago, the only thing England have to fear is the conditions. "Our one advantage is that they will not be able to spread the play quickly because the pitch is very bad," he said.

"For us, a draw against England would be success," said the defender Igor Mitreski, who was once linked with Liverpool but now plays in Germany with Energie Cottbus. "But if we play aggressively and with self-belief and follow our coach's instructions, then maybe we have a chance."

In that mention of the coach lies Macedonia's hope. When Srecko Katanec was appointed in February he was Macedonia's fourth manager in under a year, but his pedigree is better than that of any of his predecessors. Having taken Slovenia to Euro 2000 and the 2002 World Cup, he has proved he can inspire essentially ordinary players.

Then too, he had just one star - Zlatko Zahovic - and it was his tempestuous relationship with him that ended up overshadowing the end of his tenure with Slovenia, as the playmaker stormed out of their camp in South Korea after being substituted during the opening game against Spain. Pandev, contradicting national stereotype, has thus far proved rather less volatile character; Katanec must be praying he stays that way.

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