Litex Lovech Coach Confident of Overcoming Maccabi Haifa

What do Guus Hiddink, Johan Cruyff, Marcello Lippi, Frank Rijkaard, Jose Mourinho, Alex Ferguson, Carlo Ancelotti and Litex Lovech's Ljupko Petrovic have in common?

What do Guus Hiddink, Johan Cruyff, Marcello Lippi, Frank Rijkaard, Jose Mourinho, Alex Ferguson, Carlo Ancelotti and Litex Lovech's Ljupko Petrovic have in common? They are all soccer coaches, and they have all won the European Cup.

Petrovic, the Serbian who coaches Maccabi Haifa's UEFA Cup opponent, may not be a big name like the others on the list, but he has done a thing or two in his time. His playing career failed to rise to great heights; and after retiring, he coached several teams in Yugoslavia before taking the reins at the biggest name of all in the former republic - Red Star Belgrade.

With Vladimir Jugovic, Sinisa Mihajlovic, Robert Prosinecki, Dejan Savicevic and Darko Pancev, he did what was once possible with a second-tier team: He won the 1991 European Cup, beating Marseille on penalties.

After that, the Red Star team dispersed all over Europe, with several of the players going on to illustrious careers in Spain and Italy. Petrovic also indulged his wanderlust, coaching in Spain with Espanyol, in Uruguay with Penarol, and he even had spells in China with Shanghai Shenhua and Beijing Guoan. In between, he returned to Serbia for another two spells with Red Star; and in 2000, he landed in Bulgaria with Levski Sofia, before later taking over at Litex, where he replaced current Hapoel Tel Aviv coach Itzhak Shum.

In an interview with Haaretz yesterday, Petrovic flattered the Israeli champion, but made no effort to hide his expectations from next Thursday's return leg. After a 1-1 draw at Haifa, in a game played in the Netherlands, his team is the clear favorite to go through to the group stage.

"Before the first leg, Maccabi Haifa was the favorite," Petrovic said. "Now, things have changed. We got a good result in the Netherlands - exactly what I wanted, a scoring draw away from home... We should get by Maccabi Haifa. If we don't, I will be very disappointed. It's true that in soccer anything can happen, but I think that the chances are 60-40 in our favor."

At the age of 59, Petrovic is a respected figure in Bulgarian soccer - not only because of his record, but also because he is considered a very fair person; so much so that when he was suspended recently for three matches for misconduct after allegedly insulting match officials during a game against Slavia Sofia, the ban was later overturned by the Bulgarian Football Union.

"I don't remember when the BFU ruled against an official when it was a question of one person's word against another - certainly not in the last 20 years," says Bulgarian sports writer Petr Khrakov.

Petrovic said yesterday that Dezmel Berberovic, the team's midfielder who swallowed his tongue and almost died during a league match over the weekend, had improved and that he would be able to return to practice in a few day's time.

"I don't know though whether he will be available against Maccabi Haifa," Petrovic said.

How would you compare Maccabi Haifa with your team?

"I have many young players on my team. They are very talented, but young. Maccabi Haifa has a lot of experience and good and experienced players like Roberto Colautti, Yaniv Katan and that Brazlian [Javier Direceu U.D.]. Rafael Olarra is also excellent, and they have good technique."

And where is Haifa's weak link?

The two defenders aren't as good as the fullbacks and sometimes they cause problems. Tais Sluiter [Litex's Dutch midfielder U.D.] caused them a lot of trouble on the right. Maccabi Haifa is also very erratic."