Soviet Surge Part 18 | Rijeka #3: Big Name Signings

A first season in Croatia ended without a trophy but offered glimpses of promise, including a potential superstar striker smashing goalscoring records. However, the HNK Rijeka board were unhappy with Vladimir Latunov not signing high-reputation players, which he immediately set about addressing in the summer of 2028.

Just as he was getting started strengthening his squad, two massive sides from his Russian homeland came knocking. Zenit and Spartak Moscow – who had an £87 million transfer kitty! – offered him interviews then jobs but, after assessing their squads, he decided it wasn’t the right time to up sticks to Russia.

With that speculation out the way, eight new signings arrived as the transfer window opened. The pick of those were centre-back Marek Tafat from former club Honvéd, left-back Zoran Stanojlovic and midfielder Anze Kavcic. That was in addition to extending the loan of centre-back Tihomir Males from Man United, fellow wonderkid defender Balthazar Diaz returning from his loan and winger Borna Glasnovic now available for selection.

Rijeka’s young stars became the subject of Europe’s best clubs, including bidding wars that saw Florijan Bukvic join Chelsea for £7.75 million then, on deadlinde day, Miguel Angel Andrada go to Liverpool for £10 million and Jan Wagner join Man United for £6 million.

That meant there was plenty of spare cash to play with. So Latunov took a gamble on breaking the club’s transfer record to sign a star player from a rival club in winger Antonio Marin – a star of the Atalanta Avventure series on FM19 – for £6 million from Hajduk. He scored 11 league goals last season and offers a huge step up in quality. The same goes for Kingsley Coman, who was available on a free after leaving Man City and only wanted £13,500-a-week, which rings alarm bells but he certainly still has quality.

While the big deadline day sales forced him into a mini-spending spree that saw the arrival of former Plzen winger Dusan Bezdicka. The 20-year-old Czech, who scored 16 in 33 games for Latunov at Plzen, immediately smashed Rijeka’s transfer record again in a huge £11 million deal. And he was joined by exciting San Lorenzo striker Leandro Martínez for £2 million.

With those attacking signings done, Latunov was quietly confident that he’d built the best team in Croatia and hoped this gave him an opportunity to take a challenge to Dinamo. He was thinking of a more attack-minded 4-2-3-1 formation with Marin playing in the number 10 role, along with a 4-3-3 approach with a flat three in midfield.

Season 2 in Croatia begins

The second season began with a tough test at home to Dinamo, which saw Marin make his debut against his former club in the Adriatic Derby. However, Rijeka were without injured star striker Zijad Handzic and star midfielder Flávio Henrique, while Males and Stanojlovic were at the Olympics. A dire first-half was instantly forgotten as young right-back Zdenek Tesar put in a great cross for backup striker Jan Wagner to head home from two yards out 30 seconds into the second half. Hajduk offered nothing until their striker looked to be through on goal in the 93rd minute only for Diaz to cynically bring him down and receive a second yellow card. But Rijeka held on for a big opening day win.

Another clean sheet followed at Gorica, but Rijeka also failed to score from their 16 shots at goal. Midfielder Dalibor Novakovic got his first Rijeka goal to open the scoring against Bijelo Brdo, before Handzic scored twice on his return from injury, Diaz and Marin also got their first goals for the club before Novakovic doubled his tally to seal a 6-0 rout.

Handzic won and converted an early penalty then Glasnovic’s first Rijeka goal sealed a 2-0 win at Sibenik, before the striker bagged a first-half brace in a 2-1 win at Osijek. – which took him to five goals in three games. But, strangely, Europe’s big boys were only after Wagner, which got him unhappy and he eventually moved to Man United for £6 million.

Coman had made a good start to his Rijeka in terms of performances and got a deserved first goal for the club, followed by a second and third as he inspired a 4-0 win at home to Lokomotiva. And an easy 2-0 win over newly promoted Varazdin took Rijeka top of the league heading into a first clash of the campaign with Dinamo.

Rijeka hadn’t beaten Dinamo in the last nine meetings and only beaten them twice in 16 meetings going back four years to 2024. That trend continued as they put in a toothless performance to lose 1-0, mainly thanks to Károly Májer making ten saves from 21 shots faced, and relinquish top spot. A slightly improved performance saw them respond well to win 2-0 at fourth-place Sesvete led by a Handzic brace. And the striker made all the difference again in a second 1-0 win over bitter rivals Hajduk this season, in what was a dreadful match.

Handzic keeps on scoring

The Bosnian striker bagged a brace to inspire a 3-2 win over Gorica, picked up an injury that ruled him out of three games, and returned to score seven goals in the next four games. This couldn’t prevent the side struggling away from home with draws at Sibenik, Lokomotiva and a particularly poor 0-0 at Bijelo Brdo.

Dinamo took advantage and romped into a six-point lead, which looks like guaranteeing them another title before the half-way point of the campaign. But an opportunity to address that came as Rijeka made the journey to Zagreb. It wasn’t looking good as Dinamo raced into a three-goal lead in 33 minutes but a Handzic brace and a Marin goal saw Rijeka fight back and claim an unlikely 3-3 draw. That was only the third game Dinamo hadn’t won all season

The final league game of 2028 saw Rijeka entertain Hajduk, who were eight points back in third. The visitors made a bright start and led after but the hosts soon levelled through – guess who? – Handzic. And, after a stern talking to at half-time, they kicked on after the break with Bezdicka, who’d had a slow start to life in Croatia, replacing Marin to bag a brace then Handzic doubled his tally late on to seal a huge 4-1 win.

That handed Rijeka an 11-point lead over third-place Hajduk but trailing Dinamo by six points heading into a two-month winter break. Handzic is by far and away the top scorer in the league with 18 goals in 16 games, which is exactly half of Rijeka’s total tally. The striker also has 21 in 21 in all competitions, which has sparked the interest of Chelsea, Liverpool and loads of Chinese clubs, so January could be interesting.

European challenge

Rijeka were drawn with Porto in the Champions League playoffs, but battled valiantly to a 1-0 loss in Portugal then drew 1-1 at home, which was a great effort. That sent them into the Europa League groups, where they were drawn with Young Boys, RB Leipzig and Latunov’s former nemesis in Slavia Prague.

The opener came after the Dinamo disappointment but the lads rebounded nicely to beat Young Boys 3-1. They unsurprisingly lost 3-0 in Leipzig then 3-1 at Slavia before a 3-2 win at home to the Czech side – after racing into a 3-0 lead inside 19 minutes – and a 1-0 win at Young Boys.

That saw them head into a final day decider at home to Leipzig in second place in the group three points clear of the Germans. But a 1-0 loss after having two goals disallowed saw them exit the competition, which Latunov took as a blessing in disguise until he realised they had to drop into the Europa Conference League.

Join us next time as Vladimir Latunov tries to take a title challenge to dominant Dinamo Zagreb.

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