Soviet Surge Part 25 | FC Nitra #3: Into the Slovak First Division

FC Nitra won their fifth Slovak Second Division title with an unbeaten season in Vladimir Latunov’s first season in Slovakia. Now, heading into the 2032/33 campaign, the challenge was to strengthen the side and develop some exciting youngsters to step up to the top tier and move into European football.

Latunov was relatively confident has side had enough quality to survive, given they’d beaten three top-tier sides, including two of the top three, en route to winning last season’s Slovak FA Cup. But he began the summer by moving on a few players, including last season’s signings Evgeny Sokolov moving to Orenburg for £45,000, Geliel going to LKS Lodz for £145,000 and Andriy Spolar going to GKS Tychy for £43,500. Unfortunately, they also lost starting right-back Dominik Baran at the end of his contract.

He added to the squad with nine players arriving when the transfer window opened. The pick of them was 18-year-old striker Vladimir Danko, who scored 16 league goals in the Second Division for Banska Bystrica last season, for £200,000. Full-back Renato Brtan-Cvitkovic came in for £40,000 from Sesvete along with free transfers for fellow right-backs Dominik Torok from Slovan Bratislava and Stanislav Datko from Trencin. Later in the window, he added more Brazilian flair to his attack in the form of left-winger Nellinho, who comes in on loan from Dnipro, as well as striker Nicolas and right-winger Sílvio Luís on free transfers.

Tactically, Latunov didn’t see any need to change the way they played last season, given he still hadn’t lost a match in Slovakia! The regular starting 11 is very young with only four players aged over 20 and six teenagers, while the first-team squad has 12 teenagers!

Season curtain raiser

A strange, and very early, opening to the season saw Nitra face Slovacko in the Czech – Slovakian Super Cup Final (note: now I understand why it was called Czechoslovakia!) on 3 July. Nitra played fairly well in the first half but the Czechs scored inside 15 seconds of the second half. Nitra soon had a chance to level from the penalty spot and Danko duly stepped up to bag a debut goal. But Slovacko scored an injury-time goal to deservedly nick it 2-1.

Into the First Division

The Slovak First Division has been won by Slovan Bratislava all 12 seasons during this save, and the last 14 years in total. Last season they won the league by 12 points from Trnava with 64 points from 32 games, although they did lose six games and drew seven.

The 12-team league only has one team going down, with the 11th place side entering a playoff with the team finishing second in the Second Division. The media has predicted Nitra to finish in ninth at 150/1 to win the league, making Slovan the mere 2/7 favourites!

The new season began with a tough test away to Zilina, who finished third last season, and with several injury and suspension issues. And it began terribly as Zilina scored twice from two shots inside 12 minutes. However, Nellinho marked his debut with a goal the day after signing for the club to get them back into it. Any optimism was short-lived as Zilina scored in the first minute of the second half and ended Latunov’s unbeaten streak in Slovakia.

A first home game of the season saw Nellinho score again to open the scoring against Michalovce. Early in the second half a humongous hoof downfield by Radoslav Maly put striker Tomas Bobcek clean through and he duly converted to double the lead then doubled his own tally 20 minutes later.

A second away day at Ruzomberok seemed to be drifting to a dull 0-0 but inspired substitutions saw Danko setup left winger Peter Kalman to drill home an injury-time winner. Nellinho’s fine start to life in Slovakia continued as he created Bobcek’s opener then curled in a free-kick to defeat Senica 2-0.

A big job offer

Latunov’s standing in the game – Good and 3.5 star reputation – was shown by perennial Bulgarian champions Ludogorets approaching him for their vacant managerial role after their previous boss moved to Latunov’s former club Viktoria Plzen. However, he didn’t feel ready to depart the Nitra project just yet and, despite the Bulgarian’s offering a four-fold wage increase – and given the fact he’d already earned £4.6 million through his career – he decided to stay in Slovakia.

Building on a strong start

After four games, Nitra found themselves sitting third in the Slovak First Division, only behind Zilina and Slovan who both had 100% records. A concern had been star player Lukas Kalman wanting to leave after more bids, despite only just signing a new contract. But the winger created Bobcek’s opener then scored his first of the season before another Maly hoof set up Bobcek’s second for a 3-1 win at mid-table side Trnava. They were even better at home to Podbrezova as L Kalman, another Maly assist for Bobcek then a Nellinho free-kick sealed a 3-1 win. But a poor performance at fourth-place Trencin saw them fall to a 1-0 defeat as Bobcek missed a penalty.

That wasn’t ideal preparation for a first meeting with perennial champions and leaders Slovan. But they responded well with an inspired performance from Bobcek, who bagged a briliant hat-trick to down the champions 3-1. It’s probably not an exaggeration to claim that may the best win in Nitra history and it moved them one point behind the leaders.

From one extreme to the other, they then faced the two bottom clubs and played out a dire 0-0 draw at Liptovsky Mikulas then nicked a 1-0 over Zlate Moravce thanks to Nellinho’s second minute screamer. Nellinho starred again at home to mid-table Dun. Streda, creating the only goal for Bobcek in the first half of another terrible match. That win temporarily took Nitra top of the league before Slovan and Zilina drew 2-2 the next day.

Nitra had been really good at home but they were really struggling away from Pod Zoborom, which was proven by a tepid display in losing 1-0 at Michalovce then bouncing back to beat leaders Zilina by the same scoreline with an absolutely wonderful free-kick by Nellinho.

Exciting young striker Deivids Kalnins had been performing well in training so Latunov decided to give him his chance to start at home to Ruzomberok. And the 17-year-old delivered with a brace as did L Kalman, who’d been disappointing so far this season, to inspire a huge 4-2 win. That came on the same day as Slovan were held to a draw at home by struggling Senica, which saw just one point cover the top three after 14 games.

Kalnins was at it again as he scored a hat-trick to inspire a come from behind 3-1 win at Senica. They then drew with in-form Trnava and Trencin, in which Danko ended an 18-game goal drought. Danko, who’d moved to the right wing with L Kalman playing in midfield, laid on two goals in the final game of the year, in which Kalnins bagged another hat-trick as Nitra thumped Podbrezova 5-0 away.

That big win, which crowned a seven-game unbeaten run, took Nitra into a two-month winter break in second place in the Slovak First Division! They trail Zilina by five points and are one point clear of champions Slovan Bratislava, who as a reminder have won the league every year since 2019!

The club’s impressive start to life in the top-tier resulted in the Nitra board offering Latunov that, unusually for him, he decided to accept to commit himself to success in Slovakia. However, a big cause of concern was Nitra’s finances, which had plunged into the red over the last couple of months as the club loses over £100,000 a month.

The end of 2032 was crowned by L Kalman winning the Slovak Young Player of the Year award, despite a young striker at Slovan scoring 22 goals. While Nellinho was runner-up in the Slovak First Division Best Player award.

European Conference League battering

Nitra’s cup win sent them into the third tier of European football for the first time since 2010 and only the fourth time ever. They faced a tough test in the first qualifying round against Swedish side AIK, who were far too good for the Slovakian minnows and won 6-1 in Sweden. As a result, Latunov put in a fully rotated side for the home leg, from which a positive was Kalnins scoring as a young side earned a 1-1 draw.

Join us next time as Vladimir Latunov looks to take a title challenge to Slovak giants Zilina and Slovan Bratislava.

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