By Elvir Islamovic
Croatian champions HNK Hajduk Split's Super Cup win against cup holders HNK Rijeka at the weekend raised the curtain on the new season - ahead of their fixture against NK Osijek tonight.
Croatian international midfielder Niko Kranjcar scored the only goal of the game with a free-kick in the 13th minute of extra time in front of 20,000 spectators at the Poljud stadium in Split. Hajduk's victory had added significance for their coach Miroslav Blaževic, as it was his first trophy since taking the helm at the end of last season.
Larger than life
Former NK Varteks coach Blaževic will be under pressure to ensure his new club maintain their hold on the championship, despite Hajduk never having collected three consecutive First League titles before. The 70-year-old, who claims to be "a better coach than José Mourinho", remains upbeat. "There is always a first time for everything," he said.
Yet Blaževic and company will have to do so without midfielder Ivan Leko, who has joined Belgian champions Club Brugge KV, and captain Hrvoje Vejic who has ended a four-year association with the team due to money still owed him. "I couldn't wait any more, I have a familly and I have to think about them," the defender said.
Hajduk's big rivals could be NK Dinamo Zagreb, who have enjoyed an impressive pre-season under new coach Josip Kuze, with wins against French club AJ Auxerre and Scottish champions Rangers FC in friendlies in Switzerland and Canada. Dinamo Zagreb, third last term, ended their preparations with a 4-0 success against Bosnia-Herzegovina outfit NK Željeznicar, in a testimonial for Edin Mujcin who left Dinamo this summer after nine years to join NK Kamen Ingrad.
Hoping to build on their first piece of silverware, Croatian Cup winners Rijeka have gone for experience with their close-season signings, recruiting 31-year-old forward Zoran Zekic, who scored six goals in 14 league games last season on loan at league runners-up NK Inter Zaprešic from Dinamo Zagreb, and Petar Krpan from Portuguese SuperLiga side UD Leiria. Rijeka finished nine points off the summit last time out and also have a UEFA Cup qualifying campaign to contend with. NK Zagreb, NK Slaven Koprivnica and Osijek are also expected to push for the top berths in 2005/06.
Elsewhere, former Croatian international Robert Prosinecki has been appointed sporting director at NK Pula 1856, while HNK Cibalia, back in the élite after a 12-month absence, have been boosted by the arrival of kickboxer Mirko Filipovic. Although not expected to challenge for a first-team place, the fighter is not short of footballing skill and is expected to relay strength and fitness advice to his Cibalia colleagues.
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