Dejan Stankovic may play for S.S. Lazio, but his heart lies with opponents FK Crvena Zvezda.
By Jonathan Wilson
Dejan Stankovic may play for S.S. Lazio, but there is no doubt that the club of his heart lies a few hundred kilometres east of Rome, across the Adriatic Sea in Belgrade. "I am a child of FK Crvena Zvezda," he said. "They are my club."
They are also the club that his present employers face on Thursday in the second round of the UEFA Cup, and that leaves the Yugoslavia midfield player with a major dilemma. "It will be very hard for me to play against Crvena Zvezda," he admitted. "I will talk to Lazio to see if is possible that I will not have to play."
Lazio had Francesco Colonnese sent off in the second leg of their first-round victory against Greek side Xanthi FC, but Stankovic wishes he could take the defender's punishment. "I really want to be ruled out of this game," he said. "I wish I'd received another yellow card, and then I could be suspended in Belgrade. I did not want us to face Crvena Zvezda."
If Stankovic does make an appearance in the return leg on 14 November, he is assured a hero's welcome. "I grew up with the club," he said. "I watched the team at the Marakana before spending ten years there as a player." When Lazio met Zvezda's arch-rivals, FK Partizan, in the UEFA Cup Winners' Cup in 1998/99, Stankovic wore a Crvena Zvezda shirt under his Lazio colours. He is not planning a similar stunt this time.
Yet Stankovic's involvement, along with that of countryman Sinisa Mihajlovic, remains in doubt. Lucas Castromán, Dino Baggio, Fabio Liverani and Christian Manfredini are tipped to claim Lazio's midfield berths, confining Stankovic to the bench. Coach Roberto Mancini could also rest Mihajlovic, who missed a penalty in the 2-2 derby draw with AS Roma on Sunday, leaving Paolo Negro to partner Fernando Couto in central defence.
'Lot of character
After eliminating AC Chievo Verona in the first round, Stankovic feels his former club now have a "great chance" of beating his present one. Zvedza coach Zoran Filipovic was more cautious, saying: "Games against Italian sides are always difficult, but we showed a lot of character [against Chievo]. What's more, those games have shown that my players don't have any fear."
Absent through injury for the first leg in Rome will be Zvedza's Yugoslavian Under-21 international goalkeeper Vladimir Disljenkovic, and defender Dušan Basta. Lazio will also make a change between the posts where Luca Marchegiani should replace Angelo Peruzzi. Giuliano Giannichedda suffered a thigh strain in training and will be sidelined for five weeks, while Diego Simeone should start on the bench after a lay-off of his own.
Whether Stankovic or Mihajlovic play remains to be seen but should an upset happen and the Yugoslavian side win, Lazio's Zvezda link may have inadvertently played a small part in it. "I have talked with them," Filipovic revealed. "There will be no surprises for us. I know more or less everything about them."