Not many clubs in this week's UEFA Champions League first qualifying round have just sold their leading scorer to Arsenal FC. But NK Dinamo Zagreb, who were also denied a place in the group stage by the Gunners themselves last season, fully intend to extend their involvement in the competition well into next spring.
Last term was an excellent one for Dinamo. They defended their Croatian title by a margin of 20 points, winning 30 of 33 games, and reached the UEFA Champions League third qualifying round, bringing back memories of making the group stage twice in the late 1990s. In Eduardo da Silva they also had a striker rewriting the record books with a Croatian record-breaking 34 league goals. Now, though, the Brazilian-born inspiration has made the inevitable move abroad to Arsenal, to replace Thierry Henry, and left a huge gap in Dinamo's forward line - albeit along with a huge pile of cash in the club's coffers. "It is among the biggest transfers in the history of Croatian and Yugoslavian football," mused Dinamo's powerful executive vice-president Zdravko Mamić of the undisclosed sum. "We are financially strong now, no one can harm us now."
This season Dinamo's UEFA Champions League involvement begins at the very first stage, and they will be in Baku on Tuesday to meet Azerbaijan's title-holders FK Khazar Lenkoran, with the reward for the eventual winners a second qualifying round tie against Slovenia's NK Domžale or KF Tirana of Albania. But Dinamo have high hopes of going a great deal further in this competition and to that end are looking to use the Eduardo millions to build a team both capable of continuing their domestic dominance and of taking their European campaign past Christmas for the first time since their 1969/70 UEFA Cup Winners' Cup campaign. Even before last season ended 30-year-old striker Tomislav Šokota had been tempted back to Croatia from FC Porto and, following the Eduardo transfer, Dinamo have swooped for young NK Zagreb forward Mario Mandžukić and defender Ivica Vrdoljak in a €2m deal, to add to the summer signings of Ivorian playmaker Frank-Manga Guela and experienced German goalkeeper Georg Koch. Mandžukić summed up his task: "
I will try to be a decent replacement for Eduardo, but it will be hard as Eduardo is a top-class player."
Coming within 24 hours of Dinamo coach Branko Ivanković urging the need for a top quality defender, the speed of Vrdoljak's arrival is a testament to the ambition of the club, while the Mandžukić signing was the icing on the cake. “Now we have two very promising forwards, Mario Mandžukić and Josip Tadić," said Ivanković. "Vrdoljak can play in different positions and I think the club have struck a great deal. I think we are favourites in both the first two Champions League qualifying rounds, but we are making full preparations and we will be fully motivated for both ties."
The need to avoid a surplus of foreign players has brought the difficulty of the rebuilding programme into sharp focus as even before the addition of Koch, Guela and 20-year-old Brazilian forward Osmar, Dinamo already had Carlos and Etto, also of Brazil, playmaker Sammir and Cameroonian midfielder Mathias Chago among their number. Such a multinational force is a clear problem in league where only four non-Croatians can be fielded at any one time. Brazil was also the provenance of Eduardo before he assumed Croatian nationality, and Mamić believes that it is 20-year-old Sammir - who is poised to make his January move from CA Paranaense permanent in a €1.4m deal - who could prove the solution to life without the new Arsenal man. "I believe that Sammir will be the best transfer in Dinamo's history," said Mamić. "We are planning to buy his contract from Paranaense and when we sell him on one day, the club will get at least €20m."
To complement the new arrivals, Dinamo still have the spine of the squad that succeeded last season, not least defender Vedran Ćorluka and midfielder Luka Modrić. But like Eduardo they are attracting interest from across Europe, and only last week Dinamo turned down a €15m offer for Modrić from FC Shakhtar Donetsk, who were also prepared to reward the Croatian international with an additional €10m. "Luka Modrić said he doesn't want to go yet and we rejected this very lucrative offer." said Mamić. However, whether there would be a similar reluctance to go west is unclear, with Tottenham Hotspur FC having already seen a €5m offer for Ćorluka spurned. But while continued high achievement will inevitably mean more interest in the cream of Dinamo's squad, club president Mirko Barišić remains optimistic. "Eduardo has left but our ambitions are the same," he declared. "
We want to have European success and our goal is to stay in Europe until the spring. If we don't make it in the Champions League, the UEFA Cup group stage would also be a success. I think we are capable of doing that."
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