Liverpool set to launch new era (in European backwater)

Anfield new boy Jovanovic to make debut as Hodgson's side starts Europa League campaign in Macedonia
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The Independent Football

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 7am 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. 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 Sotirios Kyrgiakos as well as Alberto Aquilani, 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 Liège 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 per cent of people said they did not understand why [I refused] – and that if Real call, you have to go," Jovanovic 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 of that particular episode.

The goal was in keeping with his reputation as a high-calibre player, though. He scored five for his nation in World Cup qualifying and his penalty as Standard raced into a 2-0 lead against Arsenal in last season's Champions League reflected a European quality which made Rafael Benitez so keen to sign him. 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 the former Standard team-mate Marouane Fellaini, whom he has followed to Merseyside ("He has told me that all he does is train, play and sleep. That's all he does. Very simple. So I am preparing for hard work and a simple life") and his compatriot Nemanja Vidic, whom he may encounter at Old Trafford on 19 September. "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 has 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 (all scored against Andorra's Lusitanos in the first qualifying round).

But an all-red first choice kit is really all Liverpool have in common with tonight's opponents in the 35,000-capacity Phillip II Arena. Rabotnicki did not even have dressing rooms at their training ground three years ago. A son of the former Balkan states knows better than to lack respect, though. "In modern football there is no such thing as an easy game," Jovanovic said.

Who are Rabotnicki?

* Formed in 1937, FK Rabotnicki Skopje played in the second tier of the Yugoslavian league before Macedonia's independence in 1992, after which they won their domestic league 10 times. Following the league's reformation, and the club's purchase by metal company Kometal in 2001, Rabotnicki have been crowned champions three times, including completing a double in 2008.

* Nicknamed the 'Railway Boys', Rabotnicki's squad includes six Brazilians, as well as Croatian forward Kristijan Sinkovic. Bobi Bozinoski was top scorer in the Macedonian league last year, scoring 15 goals from midfield.

* They share the 35,000 capacity Philip II Arena with city neighbours FK Vardar. Liverpool midfielders Steven Gerrard (in 2006) and Joe Cole (in 2003) have featured in England squads to play there.

* Rabotnicki were eliminated in the first qualifying round on their European debut in 2000, but made it to the second qualifying stage in their first Champions League campaign in 2005, before going a round better the following year.

* Bolton are the only English side to have faced Rabotnicki in a competitive fixture, Sammy Lee's side winning 2-1 in a two-legged first-round tie in 2007.