Having wrapped up the national title in Czech Republic, adding to those in Poland, Turkey and Hungary, it was time for Russian manager Vladimir Latunov to spread his wings once more. He’d resigned from Viktoria Plzen and eventually wrapped up a move to Croatia with HNK Rijeka.
Who are HNK Rijeka?
Hrvatski Nogometni Klub Rijeka play in the Croatian First League, that’s the top tier, and were founded in 1946. The club is famous for producing great young talent and has exceptional youth recruitment. It has one Croatian title, won in 2017, and five Croatian Cups, most recently won in 2019, which, surprisingly, makes them the third-most successful Croatian club – because Dinamo Zagreb have dominated. Last season it finished fourth, which mean the club goes into the Europa Conference League.
The board wants the new manager to sign high-reputation players and qualify for the Champions League. It also has a whole host of plans for the next five years, including developing the best youth system in Croatia and, interestingly, to spend the original transfer budget of £18 million.
Latunov’s first task at Rijeka was to cash in on pending clauses from old sales, which bagged another £9 million to work with. He then worked on selling off 14 players to bring in £14 million and reduce the squad to seven players aged over 21.
Rijeka’s squad has a huge amount of potential, with at least 10 first-team players with 4.5-star potential or better. The best player at the club is 20-year-old Ghanaian midfielder/right-back Abu Asante, followed by Bosnian midfielder Emil Fajic and former Dynamo Kyiv left-back Kostyantyn Vivcharenko. The best attacking options include striker Kristian Dobrev, winger Claudiu Petrila. While the hottest prospects in the squad are 18-year-old left-winger Jure Subaric, 20-year-old right-back Benjamin Brekalo and 21-year-old first-choice goalkeeper Bertalan Tiefenbach.
In terms of incomings, the Croatian league is definitely a step down in standard and Rijeka has a slightly lower reputation than Plzen. But his first signing was a player he’d been tracking while at Plzen in Boca midfielder Diego Pagés for £1 million. He went back to Czech to snap up 17-year-old striker Jan Wagner also for £1 million and 17-year-old Czech arrived in exciting right-back/holding midfielder Zdenek Tesar for £250,000 from Pribram. He then went back to a player he knew well in former Honvéd goalkeeper Károly Májer, who was still just 19 and arrived for £1 million. While more exciting young talent arrived in Serbian Mateja Buser for £1 million from Cukaricki, Miguel Ángel Andrada from River for £2 million, and Zijad Handzic from Sarajevo for £2.5 million.
Life in Croatia begins
The Croatian league is a little different to previous leagues as there are only 10 teams and they play each other a huge four times. But slight issues were the limit of five non-EU and six homegrown players in any matchday squad.
Latunov’s first game in Croatia got off to a flyer as left-winger Subaric scored after five minutes, but he got injured three minutes later! Centre-back Amir Bajrami nodded in a second just before the break and right-winger Petrila scored just after it. They somehow gifted the hosts two goals but Dobrev sealed a 4-2 win in injury-time. But they somehow lost 1-0 at home to Inter Zapresic despite having 17 shots to their three and exited the Europa Conference League playoffs to MTK on away goals despite dominating both games.
Latunov was suddenly concerned about a lack of attacking quality and did a bi of work on his tactics, switching to a 4-2-3-1. It worked out well in the second away day at BSK Bijelo Brdo, with his side winning 2-1 thanks to Buser and Petrila’s first half goals. But a tougher challenge followed in the Adriatic Derby as they entertained Hajduk Split, who offered absolutely nothing and Rijeka snuck a 1-0 win thanks to Dobrev’s winner.
Unearthing a potential star
Another 1-0 home loss against Lokomotiva was followed by another derby at Dinamo, who’ve been champions in 23 of the last 25 campaigns and still have Lovro Majer and just signed Goncalo Guedes. This game also ended in a 1-0 loss but an absolute battering with Dinamo having 24 shots to four. But they were much improved in an excellent 3-0 win over second-place Osijek with a first club goal for Handzic.
A ridiculous game against Slaven Belupo saw both teams reduced to 10 men inside 50 minutes. But left-winger Mile Martinovic came on in the 61st minute to not only scored his first Rijeka goal but bag a late 18-minute hat-trick in a 4-0 win. And he struck again in a fairly weak 1-0 win over Sesvete. Then a late Handzic double sealed a massively deserved win to overcome a totally undeserved two-goal deficit at Zapresic.
Handzic was at it again in a trip to Lokomotiva, scoring twice in the first half hour, including this naughty little finish, before missing a penalty on the verge of half-time. But he wrapped up his hat-trick 10 minutes after the break to seal a 3-1 win. That took Handzic to eight goals in his last six games and five in his last two, and Latunov believed he had a potential star on his hands.
A good run of form ended at Hajduk, who didn’t have a shot in their first half but scored with their first two after the break. That took them into a top of the table clash with Dinamo, who looked like running away with the league. The visitors were easily the better team but Rijeka held on for a 0-0 and Handzic should have nicked it in injury-time but missed a one-on-one.
Handzic took his season tally to 10 with goals in a 3-0 win over Gorica and a 4-1 come from behind win at Osijek – in both of which Rijeka’s goals were scored after half-time. And that trend continued for four games as they missed a host of chances and disappointingly drew at Inter Zabresic and lost 1-0 at bottom of the league and managerless Slaven Belupo.
A concerning end to 2027 saw Rijeka somehow still second in the league, a huge eight points behind Dinamo, who had two games in hand, and five clear of Hajduk, who had one game in hand. Importantly, they are 10 points clear of fourth-place Lokomotiva, so they should improve on last year’s fourth-place finish. However, Latunov felt plenty of work was required to strengthen the side for the remainder of the season and with a view to starting to play catch-up on Dinamo.
Join us next time as Vladimir Latunov continues his rebuild of Rijeka in the fifth country on his Soviet Surge.