It is "now or never" for NK Dinamo Zagreb as they prepare to face SC Heerenveen.
By Elvir Islamovic
NK Dinamo Zagreb have been advertising their forthcoming UEFA Cup Group G home game against SC Heerenveen with the phrase: "Now or never!" For once it does not seem like hyperbole. Should Dinamo fail to win, it might be the end of the line for a number of figures at the club.
Dinamo's European campaign has taken place against a backdrop of abject failure at home. Having floundered in the Croatian league after major changes in the summer, victories in the UEFA Cup have been the only bright spots in the season - and even those have not been enough to pacify supporters.
Nenad Gracan was in charge as Dinamo demolished Belgian side KSK Beveren in their opening Group G game on 4 November. However, that result did not change Dinamo's fortunes at home, and after his side lost 4-2 at HNK Rijeka on 20 November, the coach resigned.
"I hope that a change of coach will be a positive shock for the players and I hope someone else will be able to do a better job," said Gracan. That someone else is Ilija Loncarevic, who took charge ahead of the 2-0 UEFA Cup defeat at SL Benfica on 25 November.
"There wasn't enough time to make a difference," Loncarevic said after that defeat, but supporters were unimpressed. Dinamo had looked unconvincing in Portugal. Their defence looked particularly frail against a Benfica side who did not appear to be at their peak either.
Such a performance against Dutch side Heerenveen would be unthinkable, although Loncarevic has insisted that he cannot work miracles. "We don't have enough time to make a lot of changes," he said. "We will try to practise at least two styles of play for the match.
I will not do anything radical."
However, the reality of the matter is that Dinamo are in dire need of a radical change of fortunes to bring their increasingly disgruntled fans back on side. UEFA Cup success may be nice, but some supporters have already made it clear that lying in fifth place in the league is simply not good enough.
Back in October, fans descended upon the club's training ground and demanded that players give them their Dinamo shirts insisting that they were not fit to wear them. The players complied and completed their training session in plain tops.
Club president Mirko Barisic was hardly sympathetic to his beleaguered squad. "It's interesting that the players showed no resistance," he said. "That tells you something about their mentality - that is also the way they are behaving on the pitch."
After the loss against Rijeka, things became more unpleasant, with forward Dario Zahora being attacked by fans. In recent weeks, the club have also received threatening letters from dissident supporters making for an unusually intimidating atmosphere ahead of Thursday's game.
We must be brave against Heerenveen, and play with lot of confidence although we know they are a strong team," said out-of-form captain Niko Kranjcar, who was sitting on the bench in Dinamo's last league match, as they beat NK Inter Zaprešic 2-0 to knock them off the top of the table.
Path to salvation
That first win under Loncarevic took them to within six points of the summit. A victory against Heerenveen followed by three points at HNK Hajduk Split in their final league game of 2004 on Sunday could yet postpone any further Dinamo crisis talks until well into the new year.