Next up for Rangers in the Europa League are Croatian side NK Osijek. Joel Sked gives a rundown on the Ibrox side’s second round qualifying opponents.
Who are NK Osijek?
The Bijelo-plavi (blues-whites) are a respected Croatian top tier side, one of only four who have never been relegated since the formation of the Croatian league.
They are based in a city in the far east of the country in the Slavonia region, close to the borders with Hungary and Serbia. It is a near three-hour and 300km drive from Croatia’s capital Zagreb.
Prior to the start of the Croatian first division, Osijek largely held their own in the previous combined Yugoslav League. Despite having never been relegated since the dissolution of Yugoslavia, their highest finish has been third on six occasions.
Their most successful spell was around the turn of the century. In five seasons they finished in the top four on four occasions, won the Croatian Cup, where they defeated rivals Cibalia, and qualified for Europe four times.
Osijek currently play at the modest Gradski vrt, City Garden, not far from the centre of the city. It holds around 18,000 but is rarely, if ever, full for Osijek matches. Last season’s average attendance was 3,214. However, they did manage to attract around 15,000 for a Europa League qualifying match with PSV Eindhoven.
The club have plans to a new stadium as part of a new training centre. President Ivan Mestrovic released plans for a new state-of-the-art 12,000-seater ground.
Kohorta Osijek are the club’s ultra group.
How did they qualify for Europe?
A fourth-place finish was enough for the club to qualify for the first qualifying round of the Europa League since Croatian Cup winners Dinamo Zagreb had already qualified for Europe by winning the league.
They finished 17 points off the top, not helped by no fewer than 13 1-1 draws.
They saw off Moldovan opposition to set up the tie with Rangers.
What is their European record like?
Their best European run in competition proper was back in 2000 in the Uefa Cup. They reached the third round where they were knocked out by Slavia Prague. The previous season they lost in the first round to West Ham United, the only tie they have faced British opposition.
Last season was their first European campaign since the 2012/2013 season. It was nearly a very memorable one as they reached the play-off round of the Europa League qualifiers having started in the first round. They famously defeated Dutch giants PSV Eindhoven 2-0 on aggregate, winning both legs 1-0.
However, they fell at the final hurdle to Austria Vienna on away goals.
Players to watch
Haris Hajradinovic had arguably his best season in his career last season. Playing as an offensive player in the centre of midfield he provided the team with goals and creativity. The former Bosnian under-21 international top scored in the league. He was also behind many attacks looking to make forward passes.
Rangers will also have to be wary of Albanian international Eros Grezda, if he plays. The club’s right winger missed the first round games against Petrocub Hîncești. But he will provide a spark if he does take to the field in their leg. When he gets the ball he has one thing on his mind, carrying it forward and taking on the full-back.
No player in the Croatian top-flight averaged more dribbles per 90 minutes than Grezda last season. His 9.4 dribbles per 90 would have been enough to put him fourth in the Ladbrokes Premiership behind Jordan Jones, Brandon Barker and David Templeton.
Man in charge
The club have had an upturn since the appointment of Zoran Zekcic. The 44-year-old took over during the 2015/2016 season with Osijek finishing eighth that season. However, in his two full seasons he has led them to back-to-back fourth place finishes, their highest since 2008, plus the aforementioned victory over PSV.
Zekcic played for the club in the early 90s before embarking on a peripatetic career around Croatia as well spells in Germany and Israel.
Osijek is his third management job.
What can Rangers expect?
Rangers will face a team which plays one central striker, most likely Mirko Maric. Zekcic has rarely strayed from a 4-3-3, however the shape and make-up of the midfield three can change, while the wide men can be played deeper in a 4-5-1.
They are a team which focus a lot of their play down the flanks with key players on either side. Only champions Dinamo Zagreb recorded more crosses and 1v1/dribbles than Osijek, which should ring alram bells with Rangers fans who have witnessed the space which can be left neglected behind the full-backs.
Captain Borna Barisic is a fine player at left-back and a key attacking outlet with his crossing.
The team are happy to go long, recording the most amount of long passes in the league last season, as they seek to get the ball in the final third.
The club counts famed Croatia striker Davor Suker and current international centre-back Domagoj Vida as previous players. Both came through the club’s youth system.