Serbian Dragan soars in China
Curiously, Serbian coaches have enjoyed significant success in China PR over the past decade and half. Topping the managers' list from the European nation, of course, is famed FIFA World Cup™ coach Bora Milutinovic, who took China to their first-ever qualification for the global extravaganza at Korea/Japan 2002.
At club level, Milorad Kosanovic won three consecutive Chinese League titles with Dalian Shide in 2000, 2001 and 2002, before compatriot Ljubisa Tumbakovic guided Shandong Luneng to the same status in 2006 and 2008. Stealing the show last season, however, was Jiangsu Sainty boss Dragan Okuka, whose side finished runners-up trailing Marcello Lippi's Guangzhou Evergrande by a mere four points.
Even more impressive is that the former Lokomotiv Sofia coach has successfully transformed Jiangsu from strugglers to genuine title-contenders in only his second season, a fact which saw him edge FIFA World Cup winning coach Lippi, Portuguese Jaime Pacheco and former China coach Gao Hongbo for the 2012 C-League Coach of the Year award.
And his achievements didn't go unnoticed by the Serbian FA, who elected him as the country's best coach of the year in preference to the likes of Real Valladolid manager Miroslav Djukic and Aleksandar Stanojevic.
"We had a successful season last year and this should be attributed to the joint efforts by the players, coaching staff, as well as club officials," the 58-year-old told FIFA.com recently, "As I have reiterated, our strengths are our harmony and unity. We are strong as a unit, and compact as a team. "
Joining Jiangsu in May 2011, Okuka raised quite a few eyebrows by taking his unfancied side to a fourth-place finish in his first season in charge, edging star-studded Shandong to establish their place among the league's elite.
"Before I officially took over, I watched Jiangsu play against defending champions Shandong," said the former midfielder. "And the game was evenly contested with Jiangsu only losing out 1-0. So I decided that this is a team capable of competing against any side in Super League despite our underdog status."
They continued their progress last season, becoming the only long-term challengers to holders Guangzhou. The close title-race lasted until the penultimate round when Guangzhou secured a crucial 1-0 defeat of Liaoning Whowin, while Jiangsu were held to a goalless draw by Beijing, results which saw Lippi's side clinch the championship with a game to spare.
Results aside Jiangsu have also won the hearts of fans from across the world's most populous nation through their attacking style and prolific form. In fact, they finished as the league's second best goal-scorers with 49 goals, only two shy of Guangzhou but 15 more than third-placed Beijing.
"I hope we can continue our good form from last year," added Okuka looking ahead to the new season. "We have yet to set fixed goals, but we will go on to play open, attacking football and strive to win the games regardless of our opponents."
Having said that, the loss of striking-ace Cristian Danalache due to injury is a cause of concern for the Serbian. The Romanian forward won last season's golden boot with 23 goals. To fill the void, Albanian Hamdi Salihi has recently been signed to shoulder the team's goal-scoring tasks.
"He [Salihi] has represented Albania in over 40 games so he boasts good international experience. But he has just been together with us for a little over a week and is still fitting into the team. I hope he will have a smooth acclimatisation and rediscover his fitness and goalscoring form soon," said Okuka.
Next Tuesday sees Jiangsu begin their debut AFC Champions League campaign, with an away game against K-League champions FC Seoul. A good start will, according to Okuka, provide them with a timely boost ahead of their next outing against J.League runners-up Vegalta Sendai in March, before travelling to Thailand to take on Thai FA Cup holders Buriram United, who recently eliminated Australian champions Brisbane Roar to seal their qualification.
"It is a hard group," said Okuka. "Both Japan and Korea Republic are big football countries in Asia and their teams are very strong. Buriram are also a good team and they defeated Guangzhou at the same stage last year. Our Asian rivals are surely stronger than our local opponents."
Despite the challenges facing them, Okuka said they are not intending to merely make up the numbers. He said: "Whoever we play against, we must stick to our playing style and try to attack to win. If we can maintain our momentum, run hard and bear down on the rivals, we are capable of defeating them. Most importantly, we should play well and be strong as a team."