While this may come as a surprise to some, the HNL is already a quarter of the way through the 2023/24 season. For the first time in years, the HNL has a new leader at this juncture of the season: Hajduk Split. In this article I will grade each club and their performances thus far in the campaign. While the season still has ways to go, it is starting to be clear where certain clubs can expect to finish. The order of teams will follow their current position in the HNL table.
1st- Hajduk Split: A
Hajduk knew that if they wanted to have a successful campaign this season they had to start off strong…and boy did they. Hajduk defeated both Dinamo and Rijeka early on, cementing themselves with a 2-0 record against clubs considered in the top-4 (Hajduk is part of that same top-4). Although a match with Osijek is yet to be played, Hajduk have been the most convincing side against the other big clubs this season, but what is holding them back from being totally dominant is their performances against the smaller clubs. After winning their opening five matches, Hajduk slowed down. What really hurt Hajduk was dropping six points to clubs like Istra and Gorica back to back. Despite these losses, Hajduk looked poised to make a serious title charge early on this season. The players supporting this charge were the likes of Livaja, Šarlija, Melnjak, Sahiti, and initially Pukštas. While Pukštas started the season hot, scoring the winner in the derby opener against Dinamo, he has picked up a knee injury with no clear return date as of yet. The youngster was one of Hajduk’s most promising players netting two goals in two matches before being going down. Livaja leads Hajduk with four goal, placing him fourth in the HNL scoring rankings. Defensively, Hajduk has shined as they are tied with Gorica for the least amount of goals conceded. All in all, Hajduk couldn’t have asked for a better start in the league for an eventual championship push.
2nd- Dinamo Zagreb: A-
Dinamo have been battling an inner turmoil so far in the early stages of this season. After their shocking defeat to Hajduk at home, things only seemed to get worse. HNL games were postponed for European matches, matches that didn’t favor too well for Dinamo as it saw them spiral down into the Conference League. Star players and national team starters such as Livaković, Šutalo, and Ivanušec also departed leaving Dinamo in deep water. Yet when someone looks at the league title, despite the postponements and departures, Dinamo are tied for 2nd in the league, two points off Hajduk with a game in hand. While Bruno Petković elected to stay, he has received help from loanee Gabriel Vidović who has tore up the league in his first two HNL matches. Vidović already has two goals and two assists in two matches. He played lights out against bottom of the league Rudeš scoring a goal and having two assists. Meanwhile, Petković has been excellent so far in his HNL campaign with five goals and two assists. He has been able to step up in big matches as well, netting two goals to come back and beat Osijek at Opus. Petko also scored in games against both Hajduk and Rijeka. He is the only player so far this season to score against all of the other top-4 clubs, an impressive stat for the Dinamo captain. Dinamo’s attack has been firing on all cylinders being the team with the third most goals scored despite playing the least amount of games. Despite these positives, Dinamo are still in turmoil. They dropped points at home on the opening day against Hajduk, and were not able to score in a match with Gorica which they dominated. With expectations always so high at Dinamo, the success they are seeing is good under the circumstances. However, on a positive note it does seem Dinamo are starting to correct themselves and their mistakes, just in time for a major clash against Hajduk at Poljud this weekend.
3rd- Rijeka: B+
Rijeka have quietly snuck themselves into a joint 2nd place spot with Dinamo while boasting some impressive attacking play along the way. The most noticeable headline at the Rujevica camp so far this quarter of the HNL was the return of Marko Pjaca. He played brilliantly against Osijek, scoring two goals that saw Rijeka get their only win against a top-4 side so far this campaign. Pjaca is not the only transfer that has payed off for Rijeka. Both Franjo Ivanović and Marco Pašalić who came from the Bundesliga have playing excellently for Rijeka. Half of Rijeka’s goals this season have come from new players they have brought in. Despite losing to both Hajduk and Dinamo, Rijeka are in a favorable spot trailing only Dinamo and Hajduk, waiting for either club to slip up. Rijeka have also been playing well defensively. Bruno Goda has been an influential player for Rijeka this year covering both the backline and moving into the attack. Goda has been excellent in 1v1 duels in both the HNL and Europe, while also having four goals in all competitions. Should Rijeka keep up this form next round, while taking any points they can against Dinamo or Hajduk, it is safe to say they could enter this title fight too.
4th- Gorica: A-
Gorica have found themselves in 4th place quite off of their ability to take points against the big teams. So fa, Gorica was able to nab a point against Dinamo and three against Hajduk in a comeback win. Despite not really being the biggest threat in attack, Gorica has made up for it in defense. The Goričani backline has only let in five goals so far this campaign. After nearly getting relegated last season, Gorica fans can pride themselves in fighting their way back into the top half of the table. The question remains: how long can they stay there for? Last season going into the World Cup break, Slaven Belupo sat 4th, but had a similar problem to Gorica: their lack of goals and winning matches. While Gorica are playing well, if they want to keep this form up and avoid the mistakes that saw Slaven tank to 8th last season, Gorica will need to start creating more of an offensive threat via their top attacking outlets: Vujnović and Mitrović.
5th- Osijek: B
The Bijelo-Plavi have been a tricky side to predict this season. Their attack is the best in the league with 21 goals scored already in the first quarter. This a pace that has them set for 84 goals this season, goal tallies that are usually associated with sides who have won the league in season’s prior. Another fact about their attack is that Mijo Caktaš and Ramon Mierez both sit 1st and tied 4th, respectively, in the ‘Top Scorers’ charts. So the major question is: why is Osijek in 5th place? A major flaw with Osijek can be found in their leaky backline, a defense that has given up 16 goals already, fourth most of any team in the HNL. However, despite poor form in the back half of Osijek’s campaign, the Bijelo-Plavi are not entirely out of the running quite yet. Osijek have yet to be truly dominated in any matches. Even in the Rijeka game where they were pushed to their limit, Osijek were able to get a goal back and make the game competitive. Should Stjepan Tomas be able to straighten out this backline, Osijek could very easily shoot back up the table and join the league charge with the rest of the top four.
6th- Varaždin: B-
Fran Brodić has been successfully leading Varaždin in their attempt to be last season’s Istra and wiggle their way into Europe. While not as high up in the league table as Gorica, Varaždin does have more signs of being able to consistently compete than their counterparts. Brodić sits 2nd as the leading goalscorer in the HNL and was recently bought by Dinamo for $2 million and loaned back to Varaždin. Varaždin finished their quarter off quite well going into Osijek and getting 1-1 draw in a very difficult environment to play in. While Brodić is an excellent player, will he be able to lead Varaždin all the way to the Promised Land of European play. Or will they fall short just like Istra and Gorica in season’s prior?
7th- Lokomotiva: C
In the past few seasons the Lokosi have begun to see themselves slide further back into the league table. After their momentous 2nd place finish back in 2020, Lokomotiva have seen themselves struggle to replace their outgoing talent with newer prospects to keep them in the European hunt. Lokomotiva see themselves in a similar low, sitting safe from relegation but not close enough to moving up into the competitive top half of the table. Their best players so far this season have been Vladan Bubanja and Indrit Tuci who have three goals and a goal, respectively, to their names. Just like in season’s past, the 7th place spot in HNL has been the sweet spot of being out of the fight for Europe AND out of relegation trouble.
8th- Istra: D+
Despite falling just shy of Europe last season, Istra see themselves in a very dangerous spot. Ante Erceg is no longer able to find the net as often as he would like this season and Majkić is not keeping as many goals out as in season’s prior. While the high from last season was expected to wear out, many did not expect to see it happen this fast. Istra are currently sitting 8th, six points off the drop zone, and one point above 9th place. While Erceg is currently on three goals and has the opportunity to pick up where Istra left off last season, he may notice a sense of urgency as the league begins to heat up throughout the rest of the Fall. Another issue for the Pula-based side has been in their defense. Istra have conceded 18 goals so far this season, the third most of any team this season. While Majkić is still a great goalkeeper, he has a steep hill to climb the rest of the season.
9th- Slaven Belupo: D-
Losing Ante Crnac has hurt Slaven far more than they had ever expected. The Koprivnica-based side is above the drop thanks to a 3-2 victory over Rudeš and a couple of early draws. While Moniz, the former manager for Slaven, tried to implement an attacking version for the club, a play style that goes against the usually defensive-minded club, this vision never really panned out. The aftermath of the experimentation is the second worst defense in the league, conceding 22 goals already this campaign. Slaven are also the only side without a clean sheet this season, despite even Rudeš having one to their name. Unless Slaven can get their defense back in order and defend better, they may have to mind the gap between them and the relegation zone. The best player currently for Slaven is Benedik Mioč, who has three goals and three assists this season
10th- Rudeš: F
While hiring Vatreni legend, Robert Prosinečki, seemed like a genius move at the time, his tenure did not last very long as his Rudeš side struggled right out of the gate this season. Sitting on just one singular point, the Zagreb-based club find themselves in a rocky spot. Rudeš seem doomed to repeat the past of Hrvatski Dragovoljac from a season’s ago unless they seriously get their act together. While Rudeš were able to keep a clean sheet against Istra and go 3-0 up over Osijek (despite losing the match), there haven’t been too many positives for their fans. But, with over half the season at their finger tips, and great escapes like Gorica last season and Varaždin in 19/20, anything is still possible for Rudeš. Riad Mašala has been playing good for Rudeš this season as he has handled the transition from the U-19 league to the HNL quite well, grabbing a goal and assist already this campaign. Despite coming off the bench more often than not, Mašala brings energy and passion that Rudeš desperately need right now.