At the City Garden Stadium in Osijek on Thursday night, a local hero’s welcome was afforded to Croatian World Cup defender Domagoj Vida.
One of the stand-out performers in his country’s remarkable run to the final in Russia, Vida was back home to present one of the shirts he wore in Russia to Osijek president Ivan Mestrovic before kick-off at the Europa League first qualifying round tie against Petrocub.
Vida, currently being linked with a £20 million move from Turkish side Besiktas to the English Premier League or La Liga, watched the club where he began his career secure a tense 3-2 aggregate win over their Moldovan opponents to book a second qualifying round meeting with Rangers.
But any notion of conflating the stellar achievements and world- class standards of the Croatian national team with their domestic club sides should be instantly dismissed.
While Steven Gerrard and his nascent Rangers squad will find Osijek a step up from Shkupi, the Macedonian team they overcame 2-0 on aggregate in their opening tie, it is nonetheless an assignment where they should expect to justify their status as the seeded side.
Of the 23-man Croatian squad on duty at the World Cup, only two were home-based players – Dinamo Zagreb goalkeeper Dominik Livakovic, an unused substitute throughout the tournament, and Rijeka midfielder Filip Bradaric who was restricted to just 25 minutes of action when he came on for Luka Modric in the group stage game against Iceland.
Osijek, who will host Rangers in the first leg on Thursday before travelling to Ibrox for the return fixture seven days later, had hoped to be represented in Russia by their captain, Borna Barisic. But the 25-year-old left back, capped three times, was among those cut from the preliminary 32-man squad on the eve of the finals.
Barisic scored what proved to be the winning goal against Petrocub on Thursday night as Osijek took the first step on a Europa League trail they hope can go one better than last season when they lost out on away goals in the final play-off round to Austria Vienna.
President and owner Mestrovic, a 39-year-old entrepreneur who staved off the threat of bankruptcy at his local club when he bought it two years ago, has big ambitions. He has pledged a £35 million investment in a new stadium in the city which he hopes will be ready for the 2019-20 season.
The lavish plans for the venue even include a corporate sauna, jacuzzi and champagne lounge with a view of the pitch.
“I believe Osijek will be the champions of Croatia in my time at the club,” was Mestrovic’s bold and blunt declaration recently.
Osijek’s current biggest claim to footballing fame is as the club who produced Davor Suker, Croatia’s greatest ever player who made his debut for them at the age of 16.
So far, the honour list of the club formed in 1947 amounts to just five Yugoslavian second-tier titles.
Since independence was declared in 1992, Osijek have never finished higher than third place in the Croatian League but are one of only four clubs – Dinamo Zagreb, Hajduk Split and Rijeka (beaten 5-2 on aggregate in the Europa League qualifiers by Aberdeen three years ago) are the others – to have been permanent fixtures in the country’s top flight.
They finished fourth last season, 17 points behind champions Dinamo, but coach Zoran Zekic’s stock rose on the back of their Europa League exploits which saw them defeat Swiss club Luzerne and former European champions PSV Eindhoven en route to their unfortunate play-off round exit.
Zekic, a 44-year-old former striker of many clubs, including Osijek and Dinamo Zagreb, has been in charge since 2015 and retains the confidence of president Mestrovic to fulfil the club’s ambitions of greater advancement both domestically and in Europe.
Among the players Gerrard and Rangers will need to be clued up on ahead of Thursday night is powerful striker Mirko Maric, who scored in the 1-1 first leg draw away to Petrocub, and direct winger Gabrijel Boban who has a rich football pedigree as a cousin of former AC Milan star and now Fifa deputy general secretary Zvonimir Boban.
Osijek’s most influential and effective performer for much of last season was Eros Grezda, an Albanian international midfielder who missed the tie against Petrocub and remains an injury doubt ahead of the first leg against Rangers.
Coach Zekic, however, was compensated for his absence by an impressive display from Nigerian winger Ezekiel Henty who joined Osijek on a season-long loan this summer and set up the winning goal for skipper Barisic last Thursday night.
“We need to be stronger against Rangers,” said Zekic, “and it would be a big boost for us if Grezda can recover in time to play. I believe with him and Henty together, we will be better in attack.
“We don’t have much time between the ties but I think the things we did not so well against Petrocub can be corrected against Rangers.
“This is a great tie for us against a big football name, a reward for the supporters just as the game against PSV was last year. Hopefully we can have the same outcome.”