Life in the Czech Republic had gotten off to a flying, goal-filled start for Vladimir Latunov in his first six months with Viktoria Plzen. But he now faced a two-month winter break to explore his new country and assess some of the exciting youngsters his scouts had been busy discovering.
That said, he also had to worry about other teams poaching his young starlets. The main threat was Liverpool and Man United among those chasing 18-year-old attacker Radim Koukal, who’d scored 13 in 27 from the right wing. Indeed, both eventually came in with bids and Liverpool eventually met his release fee of £7.25 million. Another was holding midfielder Josef Jezek, whose ludicrously low release fee of £5.75 million was met by Chelsea, which took the bank balance past £50 million but not ideal…
To replace Koukal, Latunov snapped up a former wonderkid and a current one. He signed Manor Solomon on loan from Zenit and 20-year-old Brazilian – because most of his player search is filled with Brazilians – Robenaldo for £2.5 million. He also appeased the board by signing a Czech player, and an exciting one at that in 17-year-old Lukas Petrik for just £60,000. To replace Jezek, he loaned in another Brazilian in Zé Mário. He also spent £3 million on two Argentinian 18-year-olds in left-winger Emanuel Izzi and Santiago Alves, who was important as Frantisek Vitek was ruled out for three months.
Away from the transfers, 2027 began with left-wing starlet Dusan Bezdicka winning the Czech Player of the Year and Young Player of the Year awards, after 17 goals and eight assists in 28 games.
First Division resumes (eventually)
After a two month wait, leaders Plzen returned to action at home to next to bottom Opava. It took them a while to get going, missing 12 shots in the first half, but Sandro Luiz tapped home his 22nd goal before Solomon teed up a screamer by midfielder Mateja Bacanin then scored himself to seal a solid 2-0 win.
That took them to seven successive wins heading into a big game at home to fellow title contenders Slavia Prague. The leaders got off to a flyer as Solomon scored his first goal in the first minute and Bezdicka doubled the lead after eight minutes. From there it was comfortable as Slavia got more bookings than they had shots on target. Sparta drew the same day, which moved Plzen seven points clear at the top.
That gave Plzen the confidence to start steamrollering the Czech First Division. Right-back Mateo Brzoja scored his first Plzen goal in a 5-0 win at mid-table Pribram, an 87th-minute penalty decided a 1-0 win over Vlasim who didn’t even have a shot, then Izzi made two and Alexandru Cicaldau scored two in a 4-0 win at Mlada Boleslav. Petrak, in for the injured Solomon, scored and made two, including Bezdicka’s 20th of the season, in a 3-0 win over Banik Ostrava, then they survived a big test at fourth-place Jablonec as centre-back Tomas Vuch scored the only goal. That took Plzen to 13 straight league wins and seven without conceding!
They took that strong form into hosting nearest challengers Sparta Prague, who scored a direct free-kick with their second shot of the game. But, amid rumours of water bottles being thrown around the changing room, Plzen came firing back with long-range screamers by Cicaldau and Alves’ first goal for the club. It should have been much more dominant than 2-1 but a great comeback sealed a 13-point lead!
Alves then scored twice in a 5-0 demolition job at Taborsko, in which all goals were scored before half-time. The regular season concluded with a 2-0 win over Jihlava and a 3-1 win at Boehmains, which saw Sandro Luiz end a 10-hour goal drought, which says a lot about the team playing around him. Plzen finished the regular campaign top with 83 points from 30 games and with the best attack of 84 goals and best defence with just 16 conceded – of which just four were after Christmas.
Czech First Division Championship Group
The mystery then unfolded heading into the six-team Championship Group, in which they play all the top six once. And, with a 13-point lead, one win would be enough to seal the Czech title. The first chance to do so came at Jihlava but they put in a poor performance and missed a host of chances to lose 2-0 – their first league defeat for nine months since August!
The next opportunity was at home to nearest challengers Slavia, which meant a draw would win the title. Plzen came out and dominated with 12 shots in the first half and went ahead just after the break through Petrak. Slavia were lucky to get a late equaliser with their striker’s 33rd of the season but it wasn’t enough to deny Plzen their glory. Czech-mate! Job done.
Viktoria Plzen were champions of Czech Republic!
A champions tour wasn’t very exciting as the goals dried up and the season concluded with an exciting game at home to Sparta. The visitors went ahead with their first shot but Sandro Luiz and Robenaldo’s first for the club moved Plzen ahead, only to immediately allow Sparta back into it. Sparta went back in front but left-back Eduard Sobol curled home a free-kick for his 10th goal of the season and it ended 3-3.
Latunov’s first season in Czech Republic ended with a league title, setting a record number of league wins (28) and most points in a season (89).
Europa Conference League
Plzen entered the knockout stages at the second round, which served up a tasty tie against Latunov’s former club Legia. His former side started better in their home leg and scored early but Bruce Alves Borges popped up with an away goal in a 2-1 loss. But Sandro Luiz stepped up to score the only goal in a poor second leg to earn an away goals success.
Their reward was a tie with Ukrainian giants Dynamo Kyiv. The home leg was first up and, despite being huge favourites, Plzen dominated the game but couldn’t finish their chances and drew 0-0. The away leg was tight until Kyiv scored just after half-time and ran away with it 3-0. So Plzen’s European dream was over.
A surprise hero was Sobol, who got 10 goals and 16 assists from left-back, along with 10 player of the match and an outrageous average rating of 7.53. Sandro Luiz top-scored with 26 goals and got 10 assists, despite a terrible barren spell at the end of the campaign. But the key man was probably Dusan Bezdicka who scored an impressive 22 goals and got 13 assists from the left-wing. Cicaldau was also excellent with 12 goals and 19 assists from midfield, while Petrak chipped in with 12 goals and seven assists, mostly as a substitute. Sobol won fans’ player of the season, Bezdicka got young player of the season and Sandro Luiz was signing of the season.
One year in Czech Republic was long enough for Vladimir Latunov to tick off the national title of a fourth country: Poland, Turkey, Hungary and Czech. He was nearly one-third of the way to his goal of winning all 13 league titles in Eastern Europe. So. with the Soviet Surge in mind, it was probably time to move on.
He applied for a couple of available opportunities but teams were put off by his hefty compensation fee. And that led to him resigning to force the issue! The first interview came with Croatian side Rijeka, while Plzen hired fellow Croatian side Hajduk Split’s manager to replace him, so Latunov applied there too.
Rijeka came in with an offer so Latunov delayed for a week to assess his options. In that time, Belarussian side Volna Pinsk and Serbian tier two side Novi Pazar offered interviews, but Latunov decided Rijeka was the best option available to him. The move saw him more than double his wages to move to Croatia.
Join us next time as Vladimir Latunov joins his sixth club in the fifth country on his Soviet Surge!