The First League kicks off this weekend in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and while all eyes will be fixed on champions FK Vardar, FK Metalurg Skopje are aiming to emerge from the shadow of their city rivals having been runners-up in the last two seasons.
After 15 years in the wilderness, Metalurg returned to the top flight in 2008/09, finishing third the following season and securing European football for the first time in their 48-year history. A club with modest beginnings were revelling in their unprecedented rise, which culminated in a Macedonian Cup triumph in 2011. Now coach Gjorgi Hristov dreams of capturing a first league title.
"That is our objective and we're ready for the challenge," former FYROM forward Hristov told UEFA.com. "For several years we have been one of the best-run clubs in Macedonia. We have prepared very well for the new season and everyone is looking forward to getting started."
Far from deflating Hristov's lofty ambitions, defeat by Polish side Ruch Chorzów in the UEFA Europa League second qualifying round served as an invaluable education. "These matches are very different from the ones played in the domestic league," he said. "We saw that even the smallest mistake matters. We learned some harsh truths and that will surely benefit us in the upcoming games.
"The biggest positive from our European campaign is that some of the young players – Blagoja Naumovski, Ninoslav Dodevski, Petar Ljamčevski and Aleksandar Dalcevski – took the chance given to them and staked a claim for a starting place," explained 36-year-old Hristov, the league's youngest tactician since his appointment last October.
Metalurg have added an experienced spine to their squad with Kemal Alomerović and Stojan Ignjatov, while ex-internationals Mile Krstev and Igor Kralevski have extended their contracts. And Hristov, whose 17-year playing career ended in 2010, believes a blend of youth and experiences will be key to their championship aspirations in "the most exciting and closest season ever".
"It certainly wouldn't be news to anyone if I said Vardar were title favourites," Hristov continued. "I honestly believe we can spoil their celebrations. I'm always an optimist. I was like that as a player and I still am today."
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