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Ardija striker Ljubijankic focused on avoiding relegation

by Andrew Mckirdy

Staff Writer

Omiya Ardija striker Zlatan Ljubijankic sees no reason why his summer move to the J. League should call an end to his international career, but for the time being the Slovenian is more concerned with keeping his struggling club in the first division.

Omiya heads into Saturday’s game against Cerezo Osaka just three points clear of the relegation zone with three games of the season left to play, and with several teams still vying to escape the drop, any false move could prove fatal.

Ardija have helped their cause by putting together an unbeaten league run of eight games, however, and having been impressed by what he has found since joining the Saitama club from Belgian side Gent in July, Ljubijankic predicts a happy ending.

“We are confident, especially because of the way we have been playing in the last few games,” the 28-year-old said at Omiya’s training ground. “We are playing well and we are not losing.

“We have not lost for I don’t know how long, and that is important. I think with the schedule everyone can win against everyone, so we are confident that we are going to stay in the league.”

After a tentative start interrupted by injury, Ljubijankic is beginning to make an impact. A hat trick in Omiya’s 4-1 win over Kashiwa Reysol in late October made up for a red card he picked up the previous month, and having started only one game with fellow Slovenian striker Milivoje Novakovic since both arrived from different clubs over the summer, Ljubijankic is keen to resume the partnership.

“Away from the pitch we are good friends from playing for the Slovenia national team, but on the pitch we have had almost no chance to play together for Omiya,” he said of Novakovic, who has also scored a hat trick and been sent off since joining Ardija on loan from Cologne in August. “I hope now he is getting better, and I hope we get some opportunities together in the next few games.”

Not that Ljubijankic is unsatisfied with the rest of his teammates, however.

“I was really surprised when I came here, especially with our team,” he said. “I was surprised they were so low in the table because I think we have a lot of quality and we deserve a better place in the league.

“The league is strong. Everyone can win, so you have to concentrate in every game. I expected a good league with players who are technically very good, but when I came here I also saw they were very aggressive in a good way. It is a good tempo, and maybe I was surprised with that.”

Ljubijankic may be currently preoccupied with his club, but eventually his thoughts will return to his country. The striker missed Slovenia’s 3-2 friendly defeat to Macedonia earlier this week as he attempts to regain full fitness, but not even the inconvenience of regular long-haul flights can persuade him to follow Novakovic into international retirement.

“I have had some problems with injury and I didn’t go for the last qualification games because I wasn’t 100 percent,” he said. “I talked with my national team coach and I decided to stay here and try to prepare myself. But in the future, we will see.

“The distance was one of the things I considered when I came here. I was thinking a lot that it would be difficult and that I would have some problems. But, OK, it is far away and you get tired, but if you are in 100 percent condition then anything is possible, including trips for the national team.”

Having scored against the United States at the 2010 World Cup and England in a 2009 friendly at Wembley, Ljubijankic has proved his worth in 37 appearances for his country. Slovenia has consistently punched above its weight since splitting from Yugoslavia in 1991, and the striker is proud to have been a part of it.

“When I play for the national team it always involves a lot of emotions,” he said. “The goals I scored against the U.S. at the World Cup and against England at Wembley are my favorite goals. They give me motivation when I am in bad shape or my confidence is low.

“We are a small country and our players don’t play in the best leagues. When we play for the national team we are really proud and we give our best. We don’t look for one player, we look for the team.”

For the rest of the J. League season, however, the only team on Ljubijankic’s mind is Ardija.

“When I arrived here it was normal that there is only one goal, and that is to stay in the league,” he said. “In this short time I want to help the team stay in J1, and after that every player wants to play for some titles.

“That is my goal — to fight for some titles with Omiya.”