Predrag Rajkovic will hope to show Chelsea why he is rated so highly
One can describe what happened to veteran Spanish goalkeeper Juan Pablo as a desperate personal tragedy. Signed by Maccabi Tel-Aviv in the summer of 2013, he cried tears of joy when his team surprisingly qualified for the Champions League in late August. The 37-year-old performed well in the playoff against Basel, helping the Israeli champions to go through and fulfilling his sacred dream of playing on the biggest European stage.
A few days later, it turned out that his celebrations were premature. Maccabi decided to sign Predrag Rajkovic from Red Star Belgrade in his place, and the Spaniard was released. He is still without a club, and his career is seemingly over.
That was a very tough and cruel decision by general manager Jordi Cruyff, but he couldn't really have acted differently. Maccabi had a historic opportunity to get one of the brightest young prospects in European football at an extremely lucrative price of just €3 million.
Rajkovic, at 20 almost half the age of Juan Pablo, is European and world champion with Serbia's youth teams, and had the likes of Paris Saint-Germain and AC Milan closely following his progress. Having signed him on a five-year contract, the Israelis believe that they will be able to make a huge profit sooner rather than later. After all, Rajkovic looks destined to star for a top club eventually.
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Rajkovic burst on the scene in July 2013, when Serbia unexpectedly won the European Under-19 Championship. The keeper was just 17 at the time, but showed remarkable leadership qualities, and was arguably the most important player in the squad. Predrag saved two penalties in the shoot out against Portugal in the semifinals, and kept a clean sheet in the 1-0 win over France in the final, stopping Anthony Martial among others.
Jagodina, his club at the time where he made a brilliant league debut against Partizan Belgrade earlier in 2013, tried to keep him, with president Goran Milanovic stating: "Rajkovic is our pride, and we would like to wait until a club like Barcelona, Real Madrid or Manchester United sign him."
However, that was an impossible dream, and just a few days later the young keeper was off to Red Star, who paid €150,000 for 70 percent of his rights.
"I've always been a goalkeeper in my soul. Why should I run up and down the pitch when I can just fall?" Rajkovic joked in a light-hearted interview with Mozzart Sport after the move. "To be a keeper is not a job for everyone, because you have to cope with responsibility and constantly be under a spotlight, but I am hooked on the adrenaline."
After spending his first season on the bench at Red Star, Rajkovic was promoted to starting line-up for the 2014-15 season. The start was phenomenal with seven clean sheets in a row, and he conceded just 16 goals in 28 league fixtures. His outstanding performances led to him being given the captain's armband.
Immediately afterwards, he was off to New Zealand with the Under-20 national team, on his way to lift the World Cup as captain, with Serbia stunning favourites Brazil with a 2-1 win in extra time in the final.
It was a truly magnificent tournament by Rajkovic, who conceded only four goals in seven games and was deservedly voted the best goalkeeper. His coolness was especially needed in the semifinal clash against the United States that ended goalless and went to penalties. Rajkovic, who likes to take spot kicks, missed his shot, but recovered superbly to save twice and bring his team the win.
Srdjan Maksimovic, Red Star's goalkeeping coach, was delighted with his protege's mental strength, saying: "Predrag can move mountains with his head."
Rajkovic has proved to be an inspirational modern goalkeeper. He is agile and mobile, possesses outstanding instincts, is very quick off his line to block strikers, and never afraid to play far from goal. He has always been compared to Manuel Neuer by his goalkeeping coach at Jagodina, Nebojsa Kostic.
Following such heroics, Red Star hoped to sell their prodigy for a good price. "They had no hope of holding on to Rajkovic because of the very difficult financial situation. UEFA threw them out of the European competitions last season, and the club must regularly pay debts to former players and coaches in order to comply with UEFA's financial fair play", Mozzart Sport editor Dejan Stankovic explains to ESPN FC.
The best offer came from Galatasaray, but the deal was vetoed by Red Star's ultras who are angry with the Turkish club following a murder of a Serbian fan in Istanbul before a Euroleague basketball game a year ago.
Augsburg offered a little more than €2 million, but Maccabi bettered them, and the Israelis could make two very important promises -- a place in the starting lineup and six games in the top European club competition. "I chose Maccabi over the Bundesliga because I couldn't refuse the chance to play in the Champions League", Rajkovic said.
Maccabi fans and local journalists were not thrilled with the coup, however. Rajkovic became by far the most expensive foreign signing in Israeli football history, and many felt that the price was too high for an inexperienced and unproven youngster. The perceived unfair treatment of Juan Pablo made the deal look much less attractive, and the pressure was right on the Serbian from the second he landed in Israel.
Expectations were even higher ahead of the first Champions League group stage game at Chelsea, because the best-ever performance by an Israeli goalkeeper was provided by Hapoel Tel-Aviv's Shavit Elimelech at Stamford Bridge in November 2001, when he made countless world class saves to preserve a 1-1 draw and knock the Blues out of UEFA Cup.
That was the level the club naturally hoped for in order to promote Rajkovic in the Champions League, but the debut proved to be a huge disappointent, immediately starting with a clumsy foul on Willian in the area. Eden Hazard sent the ball high into the sky from the penalty spot, but just nine minutes later Rajkovic completely misjudged a free kick by Willian, reacted late and conceded his first goal in the tournament.
Eventually, Chelsea ran away with an easy 4-0 win, and Maccabi's new keeper was far from convincing. "Maccabi could just as well let in those four goals with Juan Pablo between the posts", the press wrote.
For Rajkovic, who once stated that he dreams of playing for Chelsea, the visit to Stamford Bridge was very emotional, but left a sour taste in his mouth. The same can be said about the games against Porto, when the young Serbian met his ultimate idol Iker Casillas, but ended up conceding five goals and losing twice. Overall, Maccabi are the only team in the tournament who have failed to take a single point from the first four fixtures, and have the worst defensive record, as Rajkovic has conceded 11 goals.
One might feel that such a record doesn't really help the club to increase the young keeper's value, and Predrag's performances in the Israeli league were not always of the highest standard as well, especially in a 4-2 home defeat to Beitar Jerusalem.
"People in Israel don't think that Maccabi will return the investment on Rajkovic", Yaniv Tuchman of Walla Sports said.
Such pessimism is not necessarily logical. Rajkovic, who celebrated his 20th birthday last month, is still by far one of the most promising keepers in the world in his age group, and his market value should be much higher than €3 million. His form for Maccabi is gradually improving, largely thanks to the work of goalkeeping coach Aleksandr Uvarov, who played for the Soviet Union at the 1990 World Cup. "Predrag is calmer and more confident in recent weeks, and works harder in trainings," Tuchman says.
Maccabi's gamble still looks decent, but what about Rajkovic himself? He signed a long-term contract to play in a relatively weak and uncompetitive league, in order to fulfil the aspiration of starring in the Champions League. Maccabi are unlikely to qualify for the Champions League again in the coming seasons, and -- despite making his full debut for Serbian national team two months ago - Rajkovic is not yet the first choice for his country.
This is why the home game against Chelsea is so important to the Serbian. He must rise to the occasion and prove his worth to the world if he wants to move on from the Israeli league. There is little doubt that he possesses the talent to make his mark on the Champions League this season. If he fails to do so, Rajkovic might yet regret choosing Maccabi in the long term.
Michael Yokhin is ESPN FC's European football writer. Follow him on Twitter: @Yokhin