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Jurilj calls the tune

Pietà Hotspurs` Mirko Jurilj holds off Sliema striker Nenad Veselji during his side`s 2-2 draw.

Pietà Hotspurs` Mirko Jurilj holds off Sliema striker Nenad Veselji during his side`s 2-2 draw.

Profile...
Name: Mirko Jurilj.
Nationality: Australian.
Date Of Birth: 04-11-1973.
Position: Sweeper.
Former Club: Parramatta Melita Eagles.

Mirko Jurilj has hit the ground running. Snapped up by Premier League outfit Pietà Hotspurs in the summer after a recommendation from coach Ray 'Zazu' Farrugia, the 28-year-old Jurilj has already cemented his place as a pillar in the Hotspurs' rearguard, a fact boldly underlined by his being named player of the match in two of the three league matches played by his side so far.

In each of Pietà's three encounters, which produced one victory, one draw and one defeat, Jurilj has proved to be an astute defender, blessed with a flawless tactical awareness and good distribution of the ball, prompting instant comparisons with Romanian Lucian Dronca, the Birkirkara sweeper who is widely regarded as one of the best foreign players in the Premier League.

Although Farrugia will not have been surprised by Jurilj's fine start to the season, having watched the player in action for his former club Melita Eagles during a recent visit to the land 'down under', fans and critics wondered how a player coming from as far a continent as Australia could adapt to the new environment so quickly.

"I came here on July 7 and my initial impression of Malta was positive. It's a nice place. I had heard a lot of stories about the country having very little greenery and a lot of rocks back home but I couldn't quite visualise it. But I think it's a nice place, especially for holiday-makers," Jurilj told me when we met at the Pietà club on Monday.

Although Malta is distinctly different from Australia, Jurilj said he did not find it too hard to settle. "I'm used to living away from home. I have played in Malaysia and Singapore for a number of years and the culture and lifestyle there are different from Australia."

Jurilj singles out coach Farrugia as the one main reason why he made up his mind to take up the challenge of moving to Malta. "I was influenced by Ray. I had heard many positive things about him in Australia. As a young boy, I grew up watching him play when he was at Melita and I thought he was a great player.

"Pietà Hotspurs constituted a challenge for me. I knew that last season they struggled to avoid relegation and the coach told me that he was trying to put together a competitive team. That and the lure of playing full-time football again in a new country convinced me to accept Pietà's offer," Jurilj said.

Farrugia is held in the highest of esteem in local sporting circles, especially after his successful four-year coaching reign with the Malta U-21 team. The former Melita player has been widely credited with Pietà's positive start to the season and Jurilj spoke very highly of his mentor.

"He's very motivational. The coach speaks to the players and goes about his job in a very professional way. Discipline is one of his chief priorities. Farrugia is dedicated and passionate about his football and that's what I expected of him when I joined the club."

The standard of Malta's Premier League is often conceived as very poor. Jurilj was frank in his assessment of the local league. "The general standard is not too bad. People will sometimes tell you that it's an easy competition to play in but it's not as easy as one may think.

"The overall technical ability of the players is quite good but what the teams here lack is physical preparation. The fitness levels are not as high as in Australia and I found that a bit surprising. Malta being so close to Europe, I expected it to be more professional, especially in terms of fitness," the Pietà lynch-pin said.

Pietà fans are delighted with Jurilj's instant impact on the team but those who believe that the Hotspurs have already seen the best from their new recruit are in for a surprise.

"I'm happy with the way I've been playing so far this season but I can definitely give more to the team in terms of what I can do with the ball," the former Melita defender insisted.

"When playing as a libero, at times you have to be careful when venturing out of defence because you could end up upsetting the team's tactical shape. Personally, I like to move forward more often with the ball but as I said, one has to be wary of the other team. But overall, I am quite satisfied with my performances but it's the results of the team that count. I would rather settle for an average performance as long as the team wins," Jurilj added.

Having sidestepped relegation in the final weeks of last season's campaign, Pietà have set a top-six berth as their main objective this season. Their gallant performances in the opening three games have lent a modicum of credence to their ambitions and Jurilj is upbeat about their chances of breaking into the top six.

"I like the team. We have a young squad and there is a crop of talented youths coming through. Besides Kevin Mamo and myself, I think all the other players are aged under 25. There is potential and there is certainly room for improvement in every match we play. I have no doubts about our credentials of earning a top-six place," Jurilj said.

Of the teams Pietà have played against in pre-season and in the Premier League, Jurilj has been most impressed by Birkirkara. "Birkirkara are a strong team because they play as a unit. I haven't seen too much of Hibernians and we have yet to play Valletta this season."

Has Jurilj set any personal objectives for his first season in Maltese football? "I am confident in my abilities as a player and I hope I keep up the momentum throughout the duration of the entire season. I derive a lot of satisfaction from performing well because after all football is an important part of my life.

"I am looking forward to helping Pietà achieve their goals. My sights are set on a place in Europe or maybe help the club win a trophy. A European spot would be a fantastic achievement for this club and I believe it's not out of our reach.

"We may not have many big-name players in our team but names count for little because at the end of the day you have to go out there and perform," Jurilj said.

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