FK Skendija 79 are halfway to breaking a record in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, with the club led by their one-time striker Qatip Osmani bidding to become the first promoted side to win the national league title.
The team from the north-western city of Tetovo have been something of a yo-yo club in the 18 seasons since the end of Yugoslavia. However with their most celebrated former player in command, they have hit the heights this season, and went into the winter break top of the table for the first time in their history. "Our goal was to finally become a stable top-division side and grab any chance we had to play in Europe," Osmani told UEFA.com.
The Croatian-born Osmani returned to Skendija as coach in 2008, having shone in two spells as a player; from 1993-98 and 2000-06 he scored over 150 goals for the club, leading them back into the top division by winning promotion in 2009/10. They now stand a point clear of champions FK Renova and two more ahead of FK Rabotnicki in the title race, but beat both sides – and indeed fourth-placed FK Metalurg Skopke – by three-goal margins in the autumn.
"We put in some great performances in the first part of the season," said the 41-year-old Osmani. "We scored the highest number of goals in the league , and conceded the fewest [ten], so being first in the table is the icing on the cake."
Maintaining that form when the season resumes in March will be the big challenge. The club's general manager Nuriman Shaqiri has faith in his side, though he knows tough times lie ahead. "In the second part of the season we have difficult games, especially against our key rivals – titleholders Renova as well as Rabotnicki and Metalurg," he said. "However, we can't pass up this great opportunity. Now that we are top, there is no way that we will let anyone to pull us down."
Osmani concurs: "I completely agree. However, everyone at the club knows that it will not be easy.
The season is long and we know that we must keep it up and try to win every match if we want to be champions."
Having a man advantage in every home game will certainly help them in that challenge; opposition teams often joke that the Red-Blacks are hard to take on in Tetovo since they always seem to have 12 men, with gates as high as 10,000 at the Gradski Stadium giving them the biggest home support of any club in FYROM.
Now unbeaten in two seasons at home, Skendija - the name means 'spark' in Albanian - have won their last eight home ties on the bounce since opening the campaign with a 0-0 draw against neighbours FK Teteks.
"We are proud of our loyal army of supporters," said Osmani. "They are our 12th player and we will rely on their support even more for rest of the season. On behalf of myself and the players, I can promise that we'll do everything we can to make them proud of us at the end of the season."
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