Life in Croatia had gotten off to a solid start but a worrying dip towards the last month or so of 2027 had Vladimir Latunov slightly concerned about the strength of his new HNK Rijeka side. With that in mind, he used a 50-day winter break to begin spending the £20 million or so transfer kitty available to him.
That wasn’t helped by all the big Italian sides coming in for winger Jure Subaric, who eventually sealed a move to Chelsea for a huge £9.5 million that could rise to £14 million. Then goalkeeper Bertalan Tiefenbach decided to request a transfer after Latunov turned down a bid from Ludogorets and moved to Maribor for £5 million.
The pick of their replacements was central midfielder Flávio Henrique, who joined for £3.5 million and is immediately considered the best player at the club. He was joined by exciting 18-year-old former Dinamo left-winger Borna Glasnovic, who it turns out is ineligible as he can’t play for another team, attacker Slavomir Novak and midfielder Dalibor Novakovic.
First League resumes
A familiar feeling marked the return from the winter break as nothing happened in the first half of the first game back at home to Inter Zapresic. But that man Zijad Handzic stepped up to tap home an opener then curl in a free-kick before left-back Kostyantyn Vivcharenko smashed home his first goal for the club to seal a 3-0 win.
For the first time in 10 games, Rijeka scored a first half goal through left-winger Mile Martinovic – who stepped up to replace Subaric – in a 2-0 win at home to Lokomotiva. Right-winger Claudiu Petrila repeated the feat with a screamer at bottom side Bijelo Brda but they drew after a poor second half performance.
That teed up two big clashes against the other sides in the top three. First, rivals Hajduk came to town and Handzic gave Rijeka a flying start after seven minutes then doubled his tally deep into the second half. Then they made the trip to runaway leaders Dinamo, who took control after an even first half and Goncalo Guedes scored twice for the champions elect to stretch their lead. That moves Dinamo a huge 16 points clear with a game in hand, while Rijeka are five points ahead of Hajduk.
Fighting for second
With the league title well and truly out of reach, the fight was now on to secure second place ahead of Hajduk. They recovered from the Dinamo loss in style with a Handzic brace and Martinovic hat-trick inspiring a 5-0 thrashing of Osijek, at the same time as Dinamo thumped Hajduk 4-0.
But, strangely, that brought about a slump of three poor performances, including two successive home 0-0 draws. But Handzic’s 20th goal of the season put an end to that as they defeated Bijelo Brda 2-0. The lethal striker then smashed a club record by bagging all four in a 4-1 win at Lokomotiva and scored again in a 3-1 win at relegation-threatened Inter Zapresic.
That moved Rijeka eight points clear of Hajduk as they faced a trip to their rivals – by which time Dinamo had easily wrapped up the title and sat 16 points clear with five games remaining. It was an even contest in which Rijeka had more attempts but Hajduk made their chances count and took control with a goal either side of half-time to win 2-0. They then faced Dinamo at home and the visitors scored with their first two shots inside 22 minutes and Rijeka offered absolutely nothing in response. Hajduk won at the same time, which slashed the gap to just two points.
Tight season conclusion
They’d been without the injured Martinovic for both those defeats but he returned to open the scoring early on at Osijek, who then equalised with their first shot. Another shocking defensive performance allowed Osijek to go 3-1 up but a late rally with Martinovic’s second and Jan Wagner’s equaliser earned a 3-3 draw – despite having 29 shots to their nine. On the same day, Hajduk drew at home to Dinamo, which kept the gap to two points going into the final two games of the season.
First up was Gorica at home and a first-half goal from Handzic was followed three minutes after the break by a second from Martinovic, before both doubled their tallies to seal a dominant 4-0 win. Hajduk won 1-0 to take the fight to the final day.
Hajduk had a better head-to-head record so would finish second if they won at home to Osijek and Rijeka failed to, so three points were crucial at fourth-place Seveste – which just happened to be on Latunov’s birthday (14 May).
Helpfully, centre-back Miguel Angel Andrada was on international duty, which is just dumb. Rijeka started brightly as Handzic shot just wide inside 40 seconds, while Hajduk took the lead after just three minutes to pile the pressure on. Rijeka responded as Handzic latched onto an excellent Abu Asante through ball to open the scoring on 16 minutes then doubled his tally after half an hour. Sesvete fell apart as Petrila added another and Novak hit the bar just before the break, for a 3-0 lead without Sesvete even having a shot. They somehow scored out of nothing late on but Rijeka held on for a simple 3-1 win – while Hajduk conceded a late equaliser anyway.
That ensured Rijeka sealed second place in the Croatian First League, which met the board’s expectation of Champions League qualification. Dinamo set the highest points tally during this save of 90 points, only two behind the all-time record they set in 2006/07, and extended their record of winning all but one title during this save.
Rijeka were the second-highest scorers with 65 goals and had the second-best defence, conceding just 29 – both behind Dinamo, who scored 74 and only let in a ridiculous nine!
However, Rijeka did have the top two goalscorers in the league. Handzic scored an outrageous 29 goals in 32 games, which smashed the previous league record of 18. He was followed by Martinovic with 14 in 23 and Dinamo’s Goncalo Guedes with 12 in 20. They also had the two top assisters in Petrila, who equalled the league record of 10, and Flávio Henrique, who got eight in half a season. Handzic also tied the most player of the matches with nine, alongside Dinamo’s Lovro Majer, who got the highest average rating of 7.53.
The star man this season has undoubtedly been Handzic who, after signing for £2.5 million in the summer, scored 29 and got five assists in 34 games in all competitions. He’s also become a wonderkid over the last couple of months. Martinovic was also impressive with 14 goals and six assists and had the highest average rating of 7.33. Petrila chipped in with eight goals and 10 assists, but no-one else scored more than three goals.
Handzic unsurprisingly won fans’ player of the season, along with top goalscorer, goal of the season and signing of the season, and Martinovic won young player of the season. The lethal Handzic also broke the club record for most league goals, most overall goals in a season, most goals in a match (four) and most player of match awards. While Asante’s 17 yellow cards was also a new club record.
Soviet Surge update
This was just the second season without a trophy on Vladimir Latunov’s Soviet Surge – the other being his first campaign in Hungary with Honvéd. The challenge of toppling Dinamo is probably his biggest yet, so he’ll very much be open to other opportunities should they become available. But for now, he’s planning for a second campaign to strengthen his Rijeka side.
Join us next time as the Soviet Surge continues in Croatia with HNK Rijeka!