The summer of 2036 took nomadic manager Vladimir Latunov on to his 11th club in a 10th Eastern European country on his Soviet Surge adventure. The 52-year-old manager, who’d just become the second-best Russian manager in history behind only Leonid Slutskiy, took the reigns at Slovenian side NK Celje.
Who are NK Celje?
NK Celje was founded in 1919 and plays in the top tier of the Slovenian First League. Celje has two Slovenian First League titles, the first of which was in 2019/20 and the second came in the third season of this save, and three Slovenian Cup wins in 2005, 2022 and 2035. The club has average training and youth facilities and good youth recruitment and plays at the 12,950 capacity Arena Z’dezele, which was built in 2003. They also have pleasing on the eye blue and yellow kits.
The board wants Latunov to finish in mid-table and work towards becoming the ‘best of the rest’ in Slovenia. Last season, Celje finished 8th out of 10 sides in the Slovenian top tier, but the media predicts them to finish fifth this coming campaign. The club has £4.5 million in the bank balance, a transfer kitty of £3.5 million and wage budget of £38,000-per-week, which is just more than Radnicki 1923 offered.
Celje squad in 2036
An interesting note about the Celje squad is that every single player at the club is Slovenian, the vast majority came through the club’s academy, and at least half are 21 or under. The best player at the club is attacking midfielder Miha Pozrl, along with surprisingly goal-shy striker Alen Rozman and centre-back Ziga Budna, who’s made 339 league appearances since coming through the academy in 2022. They also have a solid goalkeeper in Vladimir Vidmar, another experienced centre-back Tilen Kramar and decent midfielder Matija Oblak.
There’s plenty of exciting young talent in the first-team squad, including two 17-year-olds centre-back Samo Oblak and left-back Adam Stojanov. Other exciting youngsters include three 18-year-olds in midfielder Robert Petric, right-back Andrej Dedic and versatile defender Miha Zamernik.
Latunov ended that Slovenian dominance by bringing in a familiar face. Former Nitra left-winger Nellinho, who was at another of Latunov’s former clubs Zaglebie Lubin until this summer, rejoined his former boss and only favoured personnel member at Celje. More midfield strength arrived with the free transfer of Czech player Lex van der Veen. Worryingly, champions Olimpija agreed to send 18-year-old striker Bojan Voros on loan without any wage payment, and he became the second-best striker at the club.
Latunov opted for a fairly standard 4-3-3 approach, which looked to attack while being defensively solid. And he was hoping to get more out of striker Rozman.
Into the Slovenian First League
Unusually for Eastern Europe, the Slovenian campaign kicked off in late August. And it began with the toughest test possible with the Stejerski Derby away to Maribor, who’ve won 10 of the 16 titles during this save and Celje have only beaten 16 times in 75 previous meetings.
But they got a dream start as Nellinho headed home five minutes into his debut then straight from the kick-off Rozman was sent trhough to double the lead! Kramar headed home a free-kick 50 seconds into the second half before Nellinho slotted home a penalty. Maribor got back into it with a penalty and a Kramar own-goal but a 4-2 away win was a serious statement of intent from Latunov’s boys.
The new manager’s first game at Arena Z’dezele saw Rudar Velenje come to town and dismissed 2-0 with goals by Kramar and a Nellinho penalty. Nellinho’s great start continued as he scored and created a goal for M Oblak in a 2-1 win at Bilje before Voros scored his first senior goal to nick a 2-1 win at home to Koper.
That set up a first clash with champions Olimpija Ljubljana, in which Rozman scored early but they were pegged back to a 1-1 draw in a pretty poor match. But Celje were much improved at Gorica, where Voros, Kramar and right-winger Jernej Ciric sealed a 3-1 win. Cilic scored and won a penalty that Nellinho converted in a 2-0 home win over Mura before a clinical 6-0 thumping of third-place Domzale, in which Nellinho scored two and created two and all Celje’s shots on target resulted in goals.
A Rozman double and a late first of the season for left-winger Davor Kocuvan took Celje to one quarter of the season (nine games) unbeaten with a 3-0 win at fourth-place Aluminij. Rozman was at the double again in a 3-1 win at bottom of the league Rudar Valenje then scored in a 2-0 win over Bilje, who only mustered one shot., in which Budna was player of the match on his 350th league appearance for the club.
Celje took an unbeaten streak of 11 game this season – and a club record 16 going back to the previous season – into a first trip to fellow unbeaten side Olimpija. Another great start saw holding midfielder Gordan Godvina score his first of the season and another Nellinho goal either side of a dodgy Olimpija penalty. On 24 minutes, Vidmar caught a corner and swiftly sent Ciric through on goal to make it three and Budna scored his first of the season to wrap up an emphatic 4-1 away win. Safe to say, that was unexpected.
A Nellinho double wasn’t enough as they drew 2-2 at Koper, a Rozman hat-trick help them thrash Gorica 4-0 before two consecutive 0-0 draws. They rounded out 2036 at third-place Domzale, where a first half Ciric goal was enough to edge a 1-0 win and a fourth successive clean sheet.
That took Celje into the two-month winter break still unbeaten with 13 wins and four draws, sitting eight points clear of Olimpija and 12 ahead of Domzale. They have the league’s best attack with 41 goals -16 more than any other side – and best defence with just 10 conceded. Compare that to last season, when Celje score 36 goals all season and conceded 41!
The biggest reason for this swing has been winger Nellinho, who is not only the top scorer in the league with 12 goals, but also has the most assists (10), player of the match awards (6) and highest average rating (7.57). Celje has the three top assist makers and Rozman is the second top scorer with 11 goals. So it’s safe to say Latunov has had a really positive impact on his new club!
Join us next time to discover if NK Celje can continue their fine start to the 2036/37 campaign and challenge for the Slovenian title.