F.Y.R. Macedonia thought they were on to a good thing when they appointed Srečko Katanec as coach earlier this year - after all, he had led his native Slovenia to their only two major finals in 1998 and 2000. The transformation he has subsequently effected in under seven months in charge has been immense.
Optimism among Macedonian football fans has never been higher. They have lost just twice in Katanec's seven matches - to Bulgaria in his first game and in the home UEFA EURO 2008™ qualifier against England - and this summer's run of three consecutive wins, in friendlies against Ecuador and Turkey and then the EURO opener in Estonia, was unprecedented for F.Y.R. Macedonia.
Following a goalless draw in the return fixture in England last month and a defeat of Andorra, Katanec's men are level at the top of Group E on seven points - their best-ever start to a campaign. Victory against Russia in Skopje on Wednesday could give them the outright lead. It is a vast improvement on a FIFA World Cup qualifying bid in which F.Y.R. Macedonia finished fifth, two draws against the Netherlands mitigated by a defeat and goalless draw with Andorra. The achievement is enhanced considering there have been barely any changes to the squad, with a new 3-4-1-2 formation - which met with initial scepticism - proving highly effective in defence and powerful in midfield. Just one goal conceded in four qualifiers is testament to that.
Katanec, 43, is making the most of a talented generation, led by S.S. Lazio forward Goran Pandev. Captain Goce Sedloski, of Austrian club SV Mattersburg, is the leader in defence and the roster also contains Bundesliga trio Igor Mitreski, Nikolce Noveski and Aleksandar Vasoski from FC Energie Cottbus, 1. FSV Mainz 05 and Eintracht Frankfurt respectively. Indeed, all but one of the players used so far in qualifying are based abroad - FK Rabotnicki goalkeeper Tome Pacovski the exception - although the Prva Liga's top scorer, Stevica Ristic of FK Sileks, has been called up for the Russia tie.
So good has F.Y.R. Macedonia's form been that there is speculation Slovenia could attempt to tempt Katanec back. The man himself insisted: "The Macedonian national team is my only option. I'm happy here in Macedonia and I will stay to try to achieve great results in the EURO 2008 campaign. I'm especially impressed by the great atmosphere among the players. They are great professionals with huge motivation and desire for success. Together we have restored faith in our potential."
With F.Y.R. Macedonia in the top 50 of the FIFA rankings for the first time, having been 91st when Katanec was appointed, it is hardly surprising the coach is being hailed in his adopted homeland. Qualification above England, Croatia, Israel and Russia will be tough, but if Katanec can get one over Russia coach Guus Hiddink on Wednesday, following the draw at Old Trafford, anything is possible.
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