After tasting success in more than half of the countries across Eastern Europe, Russian manager Vladimir Latunov, with all due respect, took a major step down in quality in the next leg of his Soviet Surge in the summer of 2031.
With the Ukrainian title in the bag, his next move took him to Slovakia and FC Nitra, who he freely admitted he had never heard of.
Who are FC Nitra?
FC Nitra was founded in 1909 and plays at the 7,246 capacity Stadion Pod Zoborom in Nitra, which is the fifth-largest city in Slovakia. The club has three Slovak Second Division titles to its name, the first coming in 1995 and most recent in 2005 (26 years ago). Last season the club finished third in the second tier and, this time around, is listed as favourites to go up by the media.
That potential attracted Latunov to the club, which offers a very different challenge of strengthening a club not competing at the top level. He was also impressed with the board’s ambition to develop the best youth system in Slovakia over the next couple of seasons.
The Nitra board expects Latunov to lead the club to promotion by winning the league. To do so, there isn’t much money, with only £1 million in the bank balance – which was certainly a shock to the system.
Meet the Nistra squad
The main man at Nistra is 17-year-old winger Lukas Kalman, along with fellow 17-year-old academy product midfielder Juraj Spak, while main striker Tomas Bobcek will be crucial to Latunov’s plans. The quality of the club’s academy is further proven by 24-year-old goalkeeper Radoslav Maly and midfielder Adam Liska, as well as promising 21-year-old centre-back Martin Straka.
The squad only had one non-Slovakian player went Latunov took charge. And, given the lack of finances, he set about unearthing potential free transfer signings – hoping for the new Sandro Luiz. He didn’t quite manage that but did bring in a left-winger in Evgeny Solokov, Brazilian midfielder Geliel and Polish centre-back Aleksander Cichón. He also tried to bring his Shakhtar favourite Khamzat Shishkhanov in on loan, but the player rejected the move.
One major concern was that the second-best and, realistically, only other striker at the club was 15 and therefore ineligible for the first team. To address that, he loaned in another 17-year-old in Zilina attacker Marcel Cech. The squad is also packed with exciting prospects, so the future is definitely looking strong at Nitra.
And with a better idea of the task facing him – and given he only had one striker – Latunov decided to twist his tactical approach a little and go with a 4-3-2-1 formation.
Getting started in Slovakia
His new team got a flying start as striker Bobcek tapped home inside two minutes then converted a 27th minute penalty, which was enough for a 2-0 win at home to Hummene. And a first away win followed at Inter Bratislava, where Liska scored early and late goals from Bobcek and Sokolov’s first for the club sealed a 3-1 win. The same scoreline followed at home to Gabcikovo, with Bobcek scoring again. A trip to third-place Kosice looked to be drifting to a draw only for Cech to come off the bench and score the winner on his debut.
A strong start continued with four successive clean sheets and three wins, including a 2-0 win at home to third-place Trebisov. A Bobcek hat-trick, including two penalties, inspired a 3-0 win over Bardejov that took them to ten games unbeaten.
Nitra’s fine opening to the season was tested with trips to the other two sides in the top three. Bobcek scored another penalty, plus had two goals disallowed, to help his side overturn a deficit and bag a huge 3-1 win at nearest challengers Pohronie. They then travelled to Petrzalka, who were the only other unbeaten side in the league, for a strange 10.30am on Sunday kick-off time! And it was, unsurprisingly, a tepid affair in which Kalman scored the only goal, Nitra had six shots and home side Petrzalka had none. That extended a streak of 14 games unbeaten and six consecutive wins, which both set new club records.
The unbeaten run continued through to 15 league games, including another away game where hosts Banska Bystrica didn’t manage a shot and Kalman and Bobcek sealed a 2-0 win. That took Nitra 10 points clear at the top with half the season gone, which they extended further in the next couple of games. 2031 concluded with a Sokolov brace and another Bobcek penalty, which were enough for a 3-2 win at Gabcikovo.
This strong start to the season took Nitra into a four month (!!) winter break from 8 November until 6 March. They entered that break with a 13 point lead at the top of the Slovak Second Division after 18 games, with 15 wins and three draws, scoring 38 goals and conceding just 10. Bobcek is the top scorer in the league with 16 goals and has the second-most assists with seven, while Maly’s 10 clean sheets is the most in the league.
Nitra cup run
A couple of easy cup games took Nitra into a clash with top-tier side Zilina. And their good form saw them make a great start as Kalman scored the fourth successive game in a row then Bobcek doubled the lead inside 25 minutes and made it three just before the break! Zilina got one back through a penalty, where the defender clearly won the ball, but they held firm for a famous win. That teed up a trip to another top tier side, Trnava, four days before the league resumes after the mammoth 119-day winter break.
Join us next time as Vladimir Latunov continues the latest challenge on his Soviet Surge across Eastern Europe.