Croatia: Dinamo favourites in a three-way battle for the title

THE Croatian First League championship could be decided on the last day when Dinamo Zagreb and Hajduk Split meet in the final game on May 21 at Stadion Maksimir in the capital. Dinamo, who have won 17 titles out of the last 22 since 2000, are still in slight danger of falling from the top for the first time since 2017 and their fierce rivals, Hajduk, have already beaten them twice this season. Hajduk have not won the league since 2005 and they have six points to make up.

Dinamo lost the most recent eternal derby, 1-0 in Split and this led to coach Želijko Kopić being sacked after the game. He had only been in charge since December when Damir Krznar was shown the door with Dinamo in third place in the league. The derby was a heated affair and was preceded by a crowd of 3,000 fans turning up at a Hajduk training session with their flares, banners and motivational songs.

Expectations are also high at Dinamo, and it’s little wonder given they have greater resources than their main rivals. A few weeks ago, the club revealed record revenues for 2020-21, HRK (kuna) 473 million (€ 60 million) and a cash surplus of HRK 6.3 million. Dinamo’s salaries amounted to HRK 300.8 million, which usually represents the combined wages of Osijek, Hajduk and Rijeka. So it is perhaps inevitable discontent grows if Dinamo are not running away with the title. Dinamo are still favourites for the championship though and with a five-point margin over Osijek, they have it in their own hands with four games to go.

After losing in Split, Dinamo won 1-0 against Gorica thanks to an 85th minute goal from midfielder Arijan Ademi. In the same round of matches, Osijek were beaten at Rijeka and Hajduk were held to a goalless draw by Slaven Belupo, so the two contenders both lost ground on Dinamo.

Despite a more difficult time this season, Dinamo’s players have been on some clubs’ scouting lists. Mislav Oršić, for example was wanted by Premier League Burnley earlier this year, but the reigning champions resisted any offers for the 29 year-old. Oršić, Dinamo’s highest paid player, scored the only goal when West Ham United were beaten in London in the Europa League and he is the club’s leading scorer with 18 goals this season. Young Dinamo defender Josip Šutalo is also a target, with Arsenal among the clubs interested in the under-21 international.

The leading marksman in Croatia is currently Marko Livaja, who has 26 league and cup goals for Hajduk Split. Livaja, who was expected to leave the club last summer, is on contract until 24, but if Hajduk are going to cash in on the player, they may have to hurry for he’s now 28 years old.

The Croatian First League has the youngest average age among first tier squads in Europe, the average of 25.2 years some 3.4 years younger than the oldest, Greece. Croatia is among the top 10 exporters of footballers, including highly successful individuals such as Luka Modrić, Ivan Rakitić and Ivan Perišić.

Managerial changes are not unusual in Croatia; six of the 10-team top division went into 2021-22 with new coaches and overall, only two – Osijek and Rijeka – have not changed managers, implying a short attention span among club owners and presidents.

Whatever happens in the next few weeks, it would seem likely that the title run-in will be the tightest in a few years – over the past decade, Dinamo’s winning margin has averaged almost 14 points, peaking at 25, and the lowest margin has been three points. The current gap might be low by historic standards, but both Osijek and Hajduk cannot afford to slip-up.

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