By Eduard Nisenboim and Igor Panevski
FK Rabotnicki will be hoping history repeats itself when they face Russian giants FC Lokomotiv Moskva in F.Y.R. Macedonia tonight.
Two seasons ago PFC CSKA Moskva were sensationally dumped out of the competition at this stage by Rabotnicki's domestic rivals FK Vardar. Even after a shock 2-1 win in Russia, few gave Vardar any chance of completing an aggregate victory but a resolute 1-1 draw in Skopje led to a historic result.
That was in the midst of Vardar's fifth Champions League campaign but Rabotnicki are novices, making their first appearance following a maiden league win last term. A 6-0 home success against Skonto FC was no bad way to introduce themselves to Europe's élite and although the Latvian champions won the return 1-0, coach Gjorgji Jovanovski is confident there is more to come from his side.
Gulf in standards
"We know there is a gulf in standards between Macedonian and Russian football," the 49-year-old said. "Lokomotiv Moskva are favourites but we have quality and will try to spring a surprise. In football, being favourites does not guarantee victory."
Lokomotiv Moskva coach Vladimir Eshtrekov clearly agrees and has not been complacent in the run-up to tonight's encounter. He has studied tapes of Rabotnicki and is conscious that the opposition could be fresher as the Russian season is already beyond its halfway mark.
"The Russian championship is a long process, and we can afford some slip-ups," said Eshtrekov. "We don't have that luxury against Rabotnicki. Our major problem is the lack of recovery time - following a day-off after our match against FC Moskva, we arrived at our training camp on Monday and spent Tuesday travelling to Skopje."
Saturday's Moscow derby ended in a morale-boosting 1-0 triumph, the three points helping to maintain a nine-point lead from FC Zenit St. Petersburg in the Premier-Liga. Midfielder Marat Izmailov missed that match through injury but could return to protect a defence that has conceded just four goals in 19 games this term.
Dmitri Sennikov has been one of the reasons for this parsimony, but says he will be content with a share of the spoils in Skopje. "We'd be satisfied with a draw," said the Russian international. "Macedonians can play football of very fine calibre and can't be underestimated." Lokomitiv Moskva are apparently determined not to repeat the mistakes of CSKA in 2003.
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