Who Are Rijeka? Profiling Olympiacos' UCL Playoffs Opponents
It’s in Olympiacos’ hands to qualify for the Champions’ League Group Stage having now made it to the last round of qualifiers in the form of the Champions’ League Playoffs. AGONAsport’s George Tsitsonis examines their opponents in the final round of qualifiers, Croatian side Rijeka.
Founded in 1946, HNK Rijeka has long been one of the better clubs in Croatia and before in the former Yugoslavia. However, it has only been in recent years where the club has come to the fore as the emerging force in the Croatian game.
Having secured a series of second-placed finishes over the last few seasons, the Riječki bijeli or Rijeka Whites as they are known, finally managed to win the HT Prva Liga last season, claiming the first top-flight league title in the club’s history. That they also won the Croatian Cup meaning that they come into the new season as double winners riding a wave of momentum.
The goal this season is certainly to make a splash in Europe. Though this is Rijeka’s first crack at the Champions’ League, this is not a team without European experience. The club are currently in their 5th consecutive season of continental qualification with four previous appearances in the Europa League. The last two seasons has seen the Croats go out in the qualifying rounds of the competition, but in 2013/14 and 2014/15 the team were able to clinch a Group Stage spot. In both cases, they did not qualify from the group, however they did manage to put forth credible performances and achieve some good results against teams such as Lyon, Sevilla, and Feyenoord.
Usually lining up in a 4-2-3-1 formation, Olympiacos will be coming up against a side full of battling qualities. Rijeka are a tough defensive side and will most likely present a stiffer challenge for Olympiacos to break down than Partizan in the previous round. They may have sold last season’s leading scorer Franko Andrijasevic to Gent in the close season, but there is still enough in the attack to cause problems for Olympiacos’ backline. This is a side with growing aspirations and it would be foolhardy for Olympiacos to look past this bunch.
Stadium: Stadium Rujevica (Capacity: 8,279)
Titles: 1 Croatian League, 4 Croatian Cups
Manager: Matjaz Kek
The Slovenian manager’s appointment in February 2013 has coincided with the best spell in the club’s 71-year history. After finishing 2nd in the league for three straight seasons along with two cup successes, Kek led Rijeka to their big breakthrough last season winning another Croatian Cup, but more importantly finally managing to win the league. The former Maribor and Slovenia national team boss has attracted many admirers for his work in Croatia and Bundesliga and Serie A clubs are reportedly interested in the 55-year-old tactician.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Andrijasevic’s departure leaves a hole up front, however Rijeka seem capable of filling that with their existing squad. Mario Gavranovic will be looked upon as the man to step up and provide the goals. The 27-year-old Swiss forward has been with Rijeka for three seasons, scoring 29 goals in 58 matches. If he can stay fit, he has shown his ability to score.
Filip Bradaric pulls the strings in the center of the park for Rijeka. From his holding midfield role, the Croatian international dictates a lot of Rijeka’s play. Alexander Gorgon and Zoran Kvrzic are two wide men that can certainly cause problems.
LAST SEASON RECAP
It was about as good as it gets for Rijeka last season. With a 27-2-2 record in the league, the club won their first ever HT Prva Liga title and followed it up with a 3-1 win over Dinamo Zagreb in the Croatian Cup final to become double winners for the first time. In Europe, there was disappointment as an early exit came about after an away goals defeat to Istanbul Basaksehir in the 3rd Qualifying Round of the Europa League.
THIS YEAR IN EUROPE
Rijeka have impressed thus far in their first appearance in the Champions’ League qualifiers. They easily came through a 2nd Qualifying Round match-up against New Saints by battering the Welsh side 7-1 on aggregate. Then they produced one of the shocks of the 3rd Qualifying Round by slipping past Red Bull Salzburg on the away goals rule (1-1).
PRIOR HISTORY VERSUS GREEK TEAMS
Rijeka have never played a Greek side in European competition.