Since having its independence from Yugoslavia officially recognised in the April of 1993, Macedonia has struggled to compete with any great consistency on football’s international stage, the country not yet having qualified for a single major tournament as an independent entity. Despite producing the occasional player who goes on to make an impression at club level in European football (Sasa Ciric and Goran Pandev perhaps the two most prominent examples), Macedonian football is hardly known for its cosmopolitanism and its premier domestic competition, the Prva Liga, is still an unknown quantity to the majority of the continent’s football supporters.
However, tonight’s Europa League third qualifying round clash in Skopje between Macedonian league runners-up FK Rabotnicki and Liverpool is a wonderful chance for the country’s steadily improving league to showcase itself to the rest of Europe.
Rabotnicki, managed by Zoran Stratev, have already beaten Andorran side Lusitanos and Mika of Armenia to reach this stage of the qualification process. Although the Macedonians’ chances of overcoming Liverpool are all but non-existent, this evening’s game is an important fillip for a club that has struggled financially of late and has had to lower its expectations after a trophy-laden few years that saw the team claim the domestic title in 2005, 2006 and 2008.
Spearheaded by the attacking prowess of Bobi Bozinovski – the league’s top scorer last season with 15 goals – and the Brazilian Wandeir, Liverpool should not underestimate their opposition, a team that, should they be given too much time and space by Roy Hodgson’s men, do have the ability to worry what looks set to be a relatively young and inexperienced Reds side.
That said, in Hodgson Liverpool have a manager who has an encyclopedic knowledge of even the more obscure areas of European football and will have thoroughly researched his team’s Macedonian opponents. Liverpool will, in all likelihood, give Robotnicki a sound beating tonight, but this is a huge night in the history of the home side and, with the Philip II Arena thought to be a 20,000 sell-out, will only serve to further raise the footballing profile of a country that has been making steady progress in recent years. It should be a wonderful evening in Skopje.