Goran Pandev is part of a dwindling breed. As midfields become increasingly hectic, and convoluted systems proliferate, the 23-year-old Macedonian is one of the last of the playmakers.
Srecko Katanec, his coach, is a brave man. When he took Slovenia to Euro 2000 and the 2002 World Cup, his key player was Zlatko Zahovic. The playmaker was, without question, the most gifted Slovenian footballer of his generation, and, all too aware of that, his relationship with Katanec ended with his expulsion from the World Cup squad after an outburst that made Roy Keane's deconstruction of Mick McCarthy look like a paean.
That experience has not prevented Katanec giving Pandev his head, although his faith in a player who became a cult hero at Lazio last season would feel counterintuitive even without the Zahovic precedent.
The Slovenian is supposedly the great moderniser, the ultimate advocate of the primacy of the team, and yet, as even Croatia abandon the traditional Balkan 3-4-1-2, Katanec has embraced it, apparently on the logic that, when confidence is as low as it was when he took charge of Macedonia in February, it is best that the players have a formation with which they are comfortable.
The danger of the system, as Croatia showed at the World Cup, is that if the playmaker is not performing - as Niko Kranjcar did not - the team themselves have no attacking focus. Pandev, though, seems to be revelling in the position. "The coach has given me a new role," he said. "I play deep in the forward line, and in front of me are two attacking players, and that has opened up space for me.
"Katanec has spoken to me about his plans. He wants to change the way we play and I support him. The most important thing is that he brings a winning spirit to the team, and that we all believe in our abilities. We're a lot more aggressive. We have the ambition to win games, no matter who we are playing against."
So far, Katanec's methods seem to be working. Friendly victories over Ecuador and Turkey were followed by a 1-0 win in Estonia in their opening qualifier, before the narrow defeat to England in Skopje last month. That performance has given Macedonia hope that they can repeat their performance of four years ago, when they drew 2-2 at St Mary's. That remains their greatest result, and has led to the curious phenomenon of Macedonians pronouncing the word "Southampton" with almost religious reverence.
"I'm not going to change my style," Katanec insisted this week. "We'll fight toe to toe. Look at the last 20 minutes of the game in Skopje; they were frantically defending a lead they only had because of [Peter] Crouch's goal. I don't want to underestimate them, but if we hadn't made a mistake, I'm sure they would never have scored. They didn't outplay us. If [Rio] Ferdinand and [John] Terry are panicking and Ashley Cole is hacking the ball off the line to save them, that means we can take them on."
Pandev, certainly, is looking forward to the challenge, as he admits with a candour that suggests media management has yet to catch up with a career taking flight. "We can score in Manchester, I'm sure," he said. "England have a good defensive line, but they also let in goals. What greater motivation could there be than having in front of you Rio Ferdinand and John Terry. I can't think of anything better, maybe Fabio Cannavaro, but I would love to score."
A goal at Old Trafford could have dramatic benefits for a player who, until 18 months ago, looked like joining the ranks of those eastern Europeans dumped on the scrapheap after leaving home too young to adapt to an alien culture. Pandev was 17 when he left Belasica Strumica for Internazionale, and, after struggling on loan at Spezia and Ancona, he was a makeweight in the deal that took Dejan Stankovic from Lazio to the San Siro. Last season, though, he finally took his chance, scoring 11 times in 22 starts.
Now, he is targeting the Premiership. "I hope to move to England soon," he said. "There were negotiations in the summer. Arsenal were interested but Lazio didn't want to let me go. But if I continue to play well and have some good offers, then I will go."
First, though, there is a desire to make Manchester the new Southampton, and remind the world there is life in the playmaker yet.Reuse content