Soviet Surge Part 34 | NK Celje #2: Battling Slovenia’s Big Boys

Russian manager Vladimir Latunov had overseen an impressive turn in fortunes for his new club NK Celje. The Slovenian side finished just outside the relegation zone in the 2035/36 campaign, but sat top of the league unbeaten mid-way through the current season.

The winter transfer window began with a club record sale as a flurry of Chinese clubs came in for Celje’s playersa and the board accepted offers over the manager’s head. 29-year-old centre-back Ziga Bodna moved to Guangzhou for £4.1 million followed by 33-year-old midfielder Gordan Glavina going to SH Shenhua for £875,000.

Latunov’s efforts in replacing them and delivering an unlikely title win were aided by landing a senior affiliate deal with Borussia Dortmund, which enabled free loan signings. He took advantage of that to snap up defender Joachim Fahlbusch, striker Hannes Biada and right winger Zulfikli Samsudin. He also strengthened the midfield with Zeljko Juric, who cost £31,500 from Croatian side Lokomotiva, and Sanel Ibrahimovic from Bosnian side Zeljeznicar for £200,000.

Slovenian First League resumes

2037 began with Slovenian Cup quarter-final with Olimpija Ljubljana which, for some reason, was a two-legged tie and Latunov treated as friendlies to get the squad back to fitness and lost.

The First League resumed with Celje enjoying an eight point lead at the top of the table. They resumed their unlikely title challenge away to next-to-bottom Bilje, who didn’t even have a shot on target as early goals from both wingers Jernej Ciric and Nellinho earned a 2-0 win.

That was immediately followed by a huge top vs. second clash as Celje welcomed reigning champions Olimpija. The visitors got themselves in front just after the hour mark but substitute Biada picked the perfect time to score his first senior goal and claim a massive point for his new club.

Another Dortmund boy got their first goal as Samsudin scored alongside Nellinho and striker Alen Rozman in a dominant 3-0 win at home to Koper, in which Celje racked up 30 shots to 2. They followed that up by missing a host of chances to draw 0-0 at strugglers Gorica and 1-1 at Aluminij as Olimpija lost at Mura and Domzale, who climbed above them into second. Celje then threw away a lead to lose 2-1 at home to Maribor, which was their first league defeat of the season. It seemed a wobble was on and they weren’t much more convincing as a lovely finish from left winger Darko Kocuvan edged a 1-0 win at home to Mura.

Much improvement was needed as Celje headed to Maribor and a Samsudin goal in the 96th minute finally rescued a point after his teammates squandered 15 chances. That was quickly followed by entertaining fourth-place Domzale and Nellinho rediscovered his form with an early brace that was enough for an easy 2-0 win.

10 games from unlikely glory

Celje’s mini-slump left them five points clear of an in-form Olimpija, who just beat Maribor 6-1, with 10 games remaining. The season run-in bizarrely began with a third clash with Maribor in the last five games and they got revenge as Ciric’s injury-time goal finally nicked a deserved win.

A much easier run of games began at home to bottom side Rudar Velenje, who had one win and nine points from 27 matches. Samsudin tapped home after seven minutes and Biada doubled the lead, with both created by Nellinho, but another game of missed chances ended in a 2-0 win.

Nellinho got himself suspended in that win, so Latunov handed a league debut to 17-year-old academy product Janez Leban. The winger scored five minutes into a home clash with eighth-place Bilje before Biada bagged a brace to wrap up a more convincing 3-0 win. Another clash with Rudar saw another quick start as Biada and Nellinho scored inside the first nine minutes only for left-back Miha Zamernik to get sent off and they survived a dreadful second half to just about win 2-1.

A tight title battle

Those wins teed up a huge potential title decider at Olimpija, who’d won nine on the bounce. And that showed as Olimpija won 1-0, largely thanks to a pathetic Celje performance, to close the gap at the top. Celje led Olimpija going into the last five games, with the teams split by just two points and three goal difference.

Game 1 – Koper at home: Celje put that loss behind them in a stunning first half at Koper with goals from Samsudin, defender Alen Zelko’s first of the season and a Nellinho brace. A quieter second half saw Celej come away 4-1 winners, while Olimpija won 2-0 at Gorica.

Game 2 – Mura away: Another Nellinho double, including this ridiculous late free-kick, rescued a 2-2 draw, despite having 18 shots to Mura’s eight. While Olimpija lost 2-1 at Aluminij to stretch the lead to three points.

Game 3 – Gorica at home: Gorica had just survived relegation and seemed to be on the beach as Biada scored unmarked from a corner early on then midfielder Miha Pozrl scored just his second goal of the season just before the break. That moved Cejle six points clear ahead of Olimpija only beating Mura with a 90th-minute winner.

Game 4 – Aluminij at home: Cejle went into their final home game of the season with four players out suspended. That saw 18-year-old midfielder Mitja Jelenko make his league debut and he duly teed up the opener for Nellinho after half an hour. Biada raced through to double the lead on 53 minutes and seal a 2-0 win. And, unbeknown to Latunov, that sealed the title for Celje two days before his 53rd birthday as the league was based on results against other teams rather than goal difference…

Celje were Champions of Slovenia for the first time since 2023!!

The final game of the season saw Rozman break his 11-hour goal drought with a hat-trick then created a late fourth for Leban to round off a 4-0 win thumping of Domzale.

That ensured they finished three points clear of Olimpija with a final tally of 84 points, which is one point behind Maribor’s all-time record set in 2012. They had the best attack with 75 goals scored and the best defence after conceding just 20. Nellinho was easily the league’s star man, finishing as the top scorer with 22 goals, leading assister with 15, most player of the match awards with nine and the best average rating of 7.39. Tose numbers saw him break the league records for most assists and player of the match awards and Vladimir Vidmar broke the league record for clean sheets with 20.

Record-Breaking Season

Celje enjoyed a record-breaking season that saw them saw set the highest points total in club history, most league wins (27), fewest league defeats (2), most league goals scored and fewest league goals conceded.

Player-wise, Nellinho smashed all manner of club records. That included the most goals in a season, with his 23 surpassing the 15 scored by Ivan Bozic in the first season of the save, and most league goals in a season, as his 22 bettered the 13 scored by David Bosilj in 2028. He also broke the record for most assists in a season, with his 15 besting the 11 set in 2031, and the most player of the match awards. Vidmar also broke the club’s clean sheets record with 21 in all competitions.

There’s certainly an exciting future ahead for Celje as their Under 19s also won the First Youth League and they had a golden generation youth intake with five players that have five-star potential in 2037.

Back to the Job Centre

Despite that exciting future, Latunov would play no part in it because, as much as he enjoyed his time with Celje, he needed to move on with the next leg of his Soviet Surge. So, on 1 June 2037, he resigned from Celje. The Slovenian title left just three Eastern European countries to conquer: Belarus, Bulgaria and his homeland Russia.

There weren’t too many options available, but the Spartak Moscow and Rubin jobs came up along with two vacancies in Belarus. Those jobs immediately disappeared but the Krylja Sovetov and Lokomotiv Moscow jobs soon came up and Krylja offered Latunov a massive deal worth £32,000-per-week and a £69 million transfer budget.

However, Latunov was keen to leave his homeland to the final leg of his Soviet Surge, so he made the unusual decision of moving to Belarus on £2,000-per-week. That was because struggling Torpedo Zhodino came calling.

Join us next time to discover the situation awaiting Vladimir Latunov in Belarus!

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