Young Partizan coach gunning for Arsenal scalp
Aleksandar Stanojevic might not be very well known in England right now, but the upwardly mobile Partizan Belgrade coach could be about to change all that.
At the tender age of 36, the Serbian leads his team into Champions League battle against Arsenal at the Stadion FK Partizan on Tuesday with a reputation that is burgeoning by the week.
After being named Partizan's third manager of a fractured season in April, Stanojevic quickly set about making a good impression at his boyhood club. They wasted no time in turning around a deficit to win the league title and then went a step further by beating Belgian champions Anderlecht on penalties to progress to the group stage of the Champions League for the first time in seven years.
Not content with all that, the hugely ambitious Stanojevic told me he is lining up another stellar moment in his club's recent history at their fiery 32,000-capacity cauldron of a stadium, as they prepare to welcome Arsene Wenger and his team to Eastern Europe.
"I'm not scared of playing Arsenal, certainly not. I've never thought that way about anyone," said Stanojevic, who was born in Belgrade and spent five years playing for the club. "The players won't be nervous because they are playing in front of their own fans and it is a special experience, as you will see.
Stanojevic is enjoying his first campaign as a Champions League manager
"My players and I are very pleased to have the opportunity to play against Arsenal and in this competition and though I am hoping that we can stay in Europe until the spring, we must wait and see. Finishing in the top two in the group and reaching the last 16 is still unrealistic for us, but you never know. It was unrealistic for us to get into the group stage of the Champions League, so..."
In his fledgling managerial career, over-achievement has been a regular occurrence for Stanojevic after he cut his teeth first as assistant at Partizan, then as assistant coach in the Serbia set-up and finally with a role in charge of his country's Under-19 side.
It was this success that prompted Partizan to act in April after the resignation of Goran Stevanovic, throwing Stanojevic into the deep end towards the end of the Serbian season. If it was a case of sink or swim, the one-time Atletico Madrid midfielder did more than just keep his head above water as they impressively overhauled a two-point Red Star Belgrade lead to beat their fiercest rivals to the title with a game to spare.
"I was lucky to work at a high level very young," said Stanojevic, Partizan's youngest manager in their 65-year history. "At the Under-19 European Championship in Ukraine we won third place, defeating England in the qualifying and then Spain at the tournament. They were the things that recommended me to the Partizan board as head coach.
"The success we have had... in football nothing is a coincidence. It is the beginning with Partizan, but I've had success before with the national team so I just continued along my path, doing the same as I have always done - with studiousness, commitment to my job and a faith in being successful.
"It means a lot to me that I am coaching the best club in Serbia, especially because I am a child of Partizan. I started at the Partizan youth school, made my way up to the first team and now here I am."
Stanojevic is clearly not short of confidence, with the club's 1-0 defeat at the hands of Shakhtar Donetsk in their first group game failing to diminish his belief in his team. In Brazilian-born striker Cleo, who became a naturalised Serb only last week, and midfielder Sasa Ilic, they have two players with the quality to threaten any defence on their day.
Partizan rely heavily on the goals of Brazilian-born striker Cleo
But Stanojevic also knows that in Arsenal, themselves wounded after a 3-2 humbling at home by West Brom on Saturday, Partizan face an enormous challenge to gain their first victory in the Champions League group stage at the eighth attempt.
Stanojevic, like many impressionable young managers, is an avid fan of Wenger and the way his team play the game and will take the opportunity to learn from the veteran Frenchman at close quarters. "What can you say about Arsenal, the team that, along with Barcelona, plays the most beautiful and most attractive football in the world?" he pondered.
"There is no need for me as a young coach to comment on Wenger. I was at one of his summer coaching forums, monitoring Arsenal and their style of play. My way of thinking in football is a way of how to reach the goal from greater possession of the ball - so what do you now think about how much I like the way Arsenal play?"
There is no doubt that in Stanojevic, Partizan have found a perfect fit. It is difficult to imagine another manager watching their team in Europe this week who will have the same level of emotional investment in the outcome; no other manager has had to live in their team's city while war raged around them to get where they are today.
Belgrade was capital of the former Yugoslavia, but when the Federation disintegrated in the 1990s, the city was for the best part of a decade the focal point of almost continuous war. The conflict ended in 1999 when NATO bombed Serbia to force the Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milosevic to withdraw his security forces from Kosovo.
Despite brief spells in Spain with Atletico and Real Mallorca and one in Hungary with Videoton, Stanojevic has lived in Belgrade his entire life and he will never forget what the people of the city have had to go through.
"I had nothing to do with it, but the war has had a little influence on me," he says. "Of course I was thinking about leaving the country while it was going on, but in the end I decided to stay. Emotionally, though, everyone knows that we as a people have been through a lot of stuff."
The mere fact that Arsenal are returning to Serbia after a 32-year absence (when they lost 1-0 at Red Star) should be a cause for celebration, but there's no doubt Stanojevic will want more than that to remember his day by.