CEOL
Boskov under pressure

Soccer


BELGRADE, Jun 7, 2000 -- (Reuters) Some of Yugoslavia's passionate soccer fans expect nothing less than a conquest of Europe after coach Vujadin Boskov vowed to give the nation a summer feast by winning Euro 2000.

"Our squad is made up of world class players capable of beating anyone on the day," Boskov said a day before the team's unimpressive 1-0 win over China in a friendly on March 28.

Ranked seventh among the 16 nations taking part at odds of 14-1 to win Euro 2000, Yugoslavia are certainly one of the dark horses but few people's favorites against the likes of Italy, Spain, world champions France and co-hosts the Netherlands.

Boskov said he would have to include more than just a few home-based youngsters after Yugoslavia won a berth in the finals with a dramatic 2-2 draw against bitter rivals Croatia.

The media and most of the players, on the other hand, were less than supportive and the 68-year old manager - the oldest in the competition - included veteran Dragan Stojkovic after saying he had been dropped.

"It would be counterproductive for both the young players and the squad if a bulk of teenagers were to have their baptism by fire at the European Championship finals," striker Predrag Mijatovic said after the China friendly.

His case was backed with the under-21 team's 3-0 drubbing at the hands of England in a decisive European Championship qualifier at a neutral venue in Barcelona.

AGEING PLAYERS WILL BE TESTED

Age, however, could be a problem for Yugoslavia during a demanding three-week tournament as most of the team's stalwarts are over 30, while few are regular starters at their clubs across Europe.

Their stamina and the ability to endure the torrid pace at which the game is played at top level these days will be severely tested.

"We will hit top form in time for the competition," Mijatovic said to rebuff heavy criticism voiced by the media after the team's lackluster performance against China and in subsequent friendlies which produced two goalless draws with South Korea and a 2-0 defeat to a Hong Kong select team..

Yugoslavia start their campaign against Slovenia in Charleroi on June 13. Norway and Spain are the other teams in their group.

Some players admitted they lacked motivation against the minnows of world football in non-competitive matches and promised the finals would be a different story.

"That's where we will show our true colors. We will play our hearts out for the country," first-choice goalkeeper Ivica Kralj said.

MIJATOVIC AND MIHAJLOVIC A DRIVING FORCE

The team's hopes of doing well rest largely on top scorer Predrag Mijatovic and versatile defender Sinisa Mihajlovic, both playing their club football in Italy.

Mijatovic, who won a Spanish league title and the European Cup with Real Madrid, got off to a bad start in his first season at Fiorentina but has been in fine form since recovering from an Achilles tendon injury.

Mihajlovic, a master of set pieces, is the goalkeepers' nightmare as his punishing left foot has often rescued Lazio and Yugoslavia - although his main task is to add solidity to a defense often looking shaky under pressure.

Fans and experts believe that Yugoslavia's ability to attack and score goals will be crucial, as the potentially lethal striking partnership of Darko Kovacevic and Predrag Mijatovic should be a handful for any defense.

Many of Yugoslavia's players see the finals as the pinnacle of their careers and the last chance to win a major trophy for their country, banished from international competition for two European Championships over political conflicts in the former Yugoslavia.

The team was expelled from the 1992 European Championship finals in Sweden only days before it kicked off and their replacements Denmark went on to win the tournament.

The team was also banned from taking part in qualification for the 1994 World Cup in the United States and the 1996 European Championship finals in England.



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