With HNK Rijeka nine games unbeaten at the start of the season, memories of their brush with relegation in 2011/12 are disappearing further and further into the rear-view mirror. And with a UEFA Europa League play-off against VfB Stuttgart approaching next week, the pain could soon be banished for good.
Rijeka are well respected in Croatia, a club boasting a well-stocked trophy cabinet who have had their share of ups and downs. They won two Yugoslavian Cups in the late 1970s and reached the quarter-finals of the 1979/80 European Cup Winners' Cup. Post-independence it has been a similar story: consecutive Croatian Cups in 2005 and 2006 and two First League runners-up spots.
Those heights made the depths of recent campaigns even harder to bear. Third in 2008/09, Rijeka could only manage ninth the next two seasons before their lowest ebb in 2011/12, when they ended a torrid term 12th, a solitary place above the relegation zone. A saviour was already in their midst, however: Italian businessman Gabriele Volpi having taken over the club in February 2012.
Volpi travelled across the Adriatic, settled debts and began drawing up a plan for the future. "I really want to build a strong and healthy club," he said last year. "I enjoy investing in sport and I am in love with Croatia. Those two facts are the reasons I have invested in Rijeka."
That outlay brought immediate dividends. New players came, infusing the side with real quality. Optimism returned to the Stadion Kantrida, with fans louder than ever as they spurred their favourites on to third in the 2012/13 championship. They finished the campaign with former Slovenia coach Matjaž Kek at the helm and his team have begun this term with a bang.
Five rounds into the First League and they are a point off the top after three wins and two draws. They have made impressive progress through UEFA Europa League qualifying too – following up an 8-0 demolition of Prestatyn Town FC by edging past MŠK Žilina. Now they stand two games away from the group stage, though the not inconsiderable obstacle of Stuttgart lies in their path.
"Here comes the big European test – a top name," said Kek. "That's a huge challenge and a reward for the players.
We all know who the favourites are, but the favourites don't always win. We will do our best to provide a big surprise. We have already achieved our European goal. We have made big strides – time will tell just how big."
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