Milan Jovanovic: 'Even Vidic found the English game tough'
Serbia's World Cup hero Milan Jovanovic was Benitez's parting gift to Anfield. He speaks to Tim Rich about the new challenges ahead
Monday 23 August 2010
Liverpool managers have traditionally left parting gifts for their successors. On the day he announced his retirement, a decision he likened to "walking to the electric chair", Bill Shankly signed Ray Kennedy; a man who would win three European Cups under Bob Paisley. Djibril Cissé, the £14m centre- forward whom Gerard Houllier signed but did not manage, might have had an impact on Merseyside under Rafael Benitez had he not been horribly injured in the opening phase of his first campaign.
By rights, Benitez ought to have given Roy Hodgson the kind of note Liam Byrne, the outgoing chief secretary, left for his successor after the general election – "I'm afraid there's no money."
Instead, he provided something altogether more useful; a 6ft attacking midfielder and sometime centre-forward, Milan Jovanovic, whose winning goal against Germany in Port Elizabeth had provided Serbia's only bright moment of an insipid World Cup. He would not be the only one at Anfield to have that as a subject of discussion.
He would have had time to prepare for the dressing-room conversations. Jovanovic had known he had been coming to Anfield since February. "I know everything about this team," he said. "Eighteen times champions; five times Champions League winners, Uefa Cup three times, Super Cup three times. It is the biggest club in England. I know a lot of players from the club's history."
Jovanovic's recital is impressive and similar to the list Joe Cole delivered when he was unveiled at Anfield on the same day as the Serb, which makes you wonder if they are printed in a welcome pack provided to every new signing. Cole, however, listed the FA and League Cups but, curiously forgot the Super Cups.
Naturally, at Serbia's training base in Johannesburg he and Nemanja Vidic would discuss Jovanovic's future. At the time, Vidic's most likely destination appeared to be Real Madrid but he made Jovanovic aware that beginnings in English football can be unpleasant affairs.
Vidic's first six months at Old Trafford were a rotating catalogue of errors and indecision. Within 18 months he and Rio Ferdinand had formed one of the finest central-defensive partnerships in Europe.
"He told me he expects much from Liverpool as they are Manchester United's biggest rivals," said Jovanovic. "I am looking forward to being his rival but first I must fight for my position in the team. If I am successful at that, then I can fight in a game. He is a good friend whom I am going to see a lot of now.
"I maybe need to be stronger and think more quickly to fit in. It will take time and it has happened to all the players from my country who have come to England. It happened to Branislav Ivanovic and it happened to Vidic. For the first six months they hardly played any games. I have to prepare for that and be at my best as quickly as possible. But I have come here having already played against English teams so I know what to expect."
Those matches were for Standard Liege, who resembled the uncompromising steel town in which they played. Liege is like Sheffield without the softness of the Peak District but with a rather better football team.
The Stade de Sclessin is framed by rust-coloured ironworks and there, two years ago, Liverpool were almost eliminated from the Champions League while Everton were knocked of the Uefa Cup, although their first-hand exposure to a young Belgian with big hair called Marouane Fellaini brought unexpected dividends.
"I am not sure if people in England know of my performances," Jovanovic said. "That's normal because I played in the Belgian League and English people aren't going to find that interesting. It is only a small competition but Liege played in the Champions League and the Europa League and were very successful. We beat Everton and, if I doubted my ability, I would never have come here."
His record of a goal every other game for Standard Liege is impressive, although it comes with a warning. The Jupiter League is hardly one of Europe's strongest. Emile Mpenza found the transition to the Premier League insurmountable with Manchester City, although Jan Koller, who won the Bundesliga with Borussia Dortmund a year after leaving Anderlecht, offers more of a template.
Nevertheless, Jovanovic is unlikely to need to adapt to the atmosphere of Anfield. The Sclessin is known in Belgium as the Cauldron and its most vociferous supporters are housed in the aptly-titled Publik Hysterik Stand.
So what did Jovanovic know of the Kop before his debut? "You'll Never Walk Alone, of course," he laughed. "The best fans in the world. I want to feel and enjoy everything. Your career is really short and I am proud to have the chance to play for Liverpool; to leave something for me and my family after my career."
He may mean money, although that seems not to be his chief motivation. In 2003, Jovanovic left his first club, Vojvodina, based in Serbia's second city, Novi Sad, for first Ukraine and then Russia, to play for Shakhtar Donetsk and then Lokomotiv Moscow.
There was no reason why the move would not have been successful. He spoke Russian, although since the collapse of the Soviet Union it had been relegated to his second foreign language at school, after English. But for those two clubs he played a grand total of nine matches in three seasons.
James Appell, who writes on Russian football for Cynical Challenge website, has put together a fine study of those lost years, which is partly why Jovanovic arrived at Liverpool at the relatively advanced age of 29. He suffered two serious injuries and recounted that when the Lokomotiv Moscow doctor put his hands on his torn Achilles tendon. "It was with such force that my scream could be heard all along Kutuzovsky Prospekt."
He would tell interviewers that football for him was a means "not of making money but of self-expression", and joked that he relied on property deals and automobiles for the bulk of his income.
He once asked a reporter whether he wanted 20 per cent off a new car. He made no such offer to journalists at Anfield, although he was brimful of enthusiasm about the opportunities Liverpool would give his two sons, aged three and two, Lazaar and Dusan.
"The older one is just starting to understand what his dad does," he said. "They will be Liverpool fans. Lazaar looks like me and is left-footed like me. He likes football very much, he even sleeps with his ball. Maybe he will play the game and come to love football.
"Maybe one day he will speak like Jamie Carragher."
Summer's best free transfers
French international defender crossed the north London divide by moving to fierce rivals Tottenham on a one-year deal yesterday. The 33-year-old had made 101 appearances for Arsenal, but turned down a new deal at the Emirates. Had previously spent five years at Chelsea.
The 29-year-old forward moved to Liverpool in July after his contract with Belgian side Standard Liège expired, despite late interest from Internazionale. The Serbian international had been at Standard for the past four seasons, scoring 52 goals in 116 games and has hit 10 goals in 30 appearances for Serbia.
Midfield playmaker signed for Liverpool on a four-year contract in June. The 28-year-old finished his seven-year stay with Chelsea after he failed to agree a new contract. He had made 183 appearances for the Stamford Bridge side, and scored 28 goals after joining from West Ham for £6.6m in August 2003, after the Hammers suffered relegation to the Championship.
The 26-year-old Moroccan International joined Arsenal on a long-term deal after his contract expired with Bordeaux. The striker netted 15 times for the Ligue 1 side last season, including five in the Champions League.
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