The only side to have progressed from the first to the third qualifying round this summer, FK Rabotnicki are within sight of the UEFA Champions League group stage.
As F.Y.R. Macedonia's title-holders prepare for the away leg of their tie against French club LOSC Lille Métropole, they are experiencing perhaps their most exciting run of European results since being formed in 1937. Champions for the last two seasons, and having edged past Luxembourg's F91 Dudelange in the first qualifying round, Skopje-based Rabotnicki then caused an upset by beating Hungary's Debreceni VSC 5-2 on aggregate.
Having lost their opening league game 2-1 at FK Sileks on Sunday, Rabotnicki might be said to have their eyes on bigger prizes. Coach Gjorgi Jovanovski was in France watching Lille while his assistant Borce Micevski took temporary charge, resting several players in Kratovo. Jovanovski, meanwhile, gleaned useful information from Lille's 2-1 win at Stade Rennais FC. "Lille are a good team with experience in the UEFA Champions League," he said. "They have good players like [the suspended] Mathieu Bodmer, Kader Keita and Peter Odemwingie. We will do well to stop them."
Grit, Jovanovski admitted, will be key. "It will be a tough match but we won't surrender until the end," he continued. "We are under no pressure to get a result and that is to our advantage. We have nothing to lose. As always, I expect my players to give their best." Defender Miroslav Vajs echoed those sentiments: "The important thing is we have already fulfilled our ambitions. We have earned a place in the third qualifying round of the UEFA Champions League. Now we play without pressure. It's easier for us."
Having scored a splendid 30-metre goal against Debrecen, Rabotnicki's Macedonian Under-21 international Nderim Nedzipi is confident. "The French side are favourites, but we have shown we can take on big opponents and I hope we can do it again," he said. Rabotnicki will be without suspended Serbian defender Dragoljub Jeremić but their rearguard options have been swelled by Metodija Stepanovski's return from a ban. They will also hope goalkeeper Tome Pacovski, the only Rabotnicki player in F.Y.R. Macedonia's squad for the UEFA EURO 2008™ qualifier against Estonia, can have the game of his life.
'We are honoured'
However, just being among some of Europe's élite teams might be reward enough for Jovanovski's men. "We are honoured to be in the third qualifying round with great clubs like AC Milan, Liverpool [FC] and Arsenal [FC]," he said. Should they achieve the improbable and overcome Lille after the home second leg on 23 August, they could be meeting yet more illustrious rivals in the group stage.
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