For the first time, I think ever, the 1. HNL has two Champions League places up for grabs. Whoever gets these places will still have to go through the qualifying stages to get into the group stage for the 2020-21 European season, but even so, it is a great opportunity for Croatian soccer as a whole. Dinamo Zagreb already has the first spot locked up after recently being crowned champions, but after recent results, it almost seems like the four teams in serious contention, Rijeka and Hajduk in particular, don’t even want the second spot. These teams are: Lokomotiva, Osijek, Hajduk and Rijeka. With just five points separating second and fifth place, let’s take a look at each team, see how they have been doing, and what their chances of getting the coveted second Champions League spot are with just four games remaining.
NK Lokomotiva – Lokomotiva is currently in 2nd place, ahead of third-placed Osijek by just one point. They have been pretty good since the restart with three wins, including a 1-0 win over Dinamo, two draws, and a loss. However, the 1-1 draw with Istra must have been disappointing for them as Istra is currently looking like they will finish in ninth place and have to fight for survival in a playoff. Lokomotiva has also had a couple weak results. For example, the 1-0 loss to Slaven Belupo. But, overall they have had a good season. They SHOULD win their next three games against Inter Zaprešić, Slaven Belupo, and Gorica. However, their final game of the season could end up being a “2nd vs. 3rd” place as they face Osijek, the only team they have lost to since the restart.
Osijek – Osijek and leading goal scorer Mirko Marić, have arguably been the best team since the restart. In this time, they have won four and drawn two. They won two crucial games against Lokomotiva and Rijeka and took home a 0-0 draw with Dinamo. They too have taken a couple bad results this season against bottom half teams. They played out a 0-0 draw with Slaven Belupo in their second game after the restart and have lost and drawn against Istra earlier in the season. Istra could come back to bite them again, which could be devastating if they do not manage to beat Hajduk on Sunday. After those two games, they will face Varaždin and have the aforementioned showdown with Lokomotiva.
Hajduk Split – Hajduk has not done amazingly well since the continuation of the 1. HNL. They started off well enough narrowly defeating Istra and Zaprešić. Then, they disappointingly lost 3-2 to Varaždin and then 3-2 to Lokomotiva. They then squeaked by 2-1 against Slaven Belupo before just recently losing 3-1 to Gorica. Those losses could really hurt them big time as they now have to face Osijek, Dinamo, and Rijeka before finishing off the season against Zaprešić. These are definitely games they can win. Osijek, in my opinion, might just be the toughest match up. Dinamo has been playing some youngsters a bit since the games are meaningless for them and have not been playing that well in general. Zaprešić is a game Hajduk should definitely win and Rijeka is currently looking very beatable.
Rijeka – What is going on with Rijeka? They kicked off their return to 1. HNL play with a 3-1 win over Istra and have not won a game since. They started their slide down the table with two draws against Varaždin and Lokomotiva. Now, they have lost three straight to Slaven Belupo, Gorica, and Osijek, only scoring once in those three games. They are going to have to turn it around very quickly and hope for results elsewhere if they want a chance at 2nd place. They face Dinamo this weekend at home, then play two games on the road against Zaprešić and Hajduk before returning home to finish off the season against Istra.
Who do you think will win the race to 2nd place? I think it will be Lokomotiva because they have the easiest schedule. This weekend will be crucial. If Rijeka lose, they are just about out of contention. Hajduk could even be in 2nd place after this week if they win, Lokomotiva loses, and Osijek drops points. As I like to say on a lot of my posts, only time will tell.