Football Features

How Dinamo Zagreb could have lined up if they hadn’t sold their star players

By Squawka News

Published: 16:45, 15 September 2021

Since its inception in 1992, one team has reigned supreme over all others in the Croatian First League: Dinamo Zagreb.

Over the past 30 seasons, Croatia’s biggest club has won an impressive 22 league titles, including all but one of the last 16.

And it’s not hard to see why they’ve been so dominant considering some of the players who have donned the blue shirt down the years.

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Virtually all of Croatia’s best players over the past few decades have at some point turned out at the Stadion Maksimir, whether they have risen through the youth ranks or been signed from smaller clubs across the country.

Sadly, though, whenever a player begins to show a hint of promise for the Blues, they are usually snapped up by richer clubs in Europe and rarely does one of their prized assets make over 100 appearances before leaving.

Fortunately, Dinamo possesses one of the finest youth academies in world football, enabling them to reinvent their side time and time again to cope with the loss of their most talented stars.

Had they managed to keep hold of all of their best players, though, they would undoubtedly be one of the finest teams on the continent at one stage or another.

Goalkeeper: Dominik Livakovic

Age: 26
Dinamo Zagreb appearances: 197
Current club: Dinamo Zagreb

A phenomenal goalkeeper consistently linked to Europe’s top five leagues, Dominik Livakovic is the latest technically-superb Modri flying the Zagreb flag. Tottenham fans will remember him (not very fondly) for producing a world-class save off Harry Kane in last season’s Europa League, in which the Croatian side knocked out then Jose Mourinho’s men to reach the competition’s quarter-final stage for the first time ever. He also made the second-most saves across the entire tournament (39), was the only ‘keeper to register double digits for punches (10) and had the second-highest save percentage for players with over 10 appearances (82.22%). A simply superb shot-stopper who is well on his way to legendary status, if not already there.

Right-back: Tin Jedvaj

Age: 25
Dinamo Zagreb appearances: 14
Current club: Lokomotiv Moscow

So highly rated was Tin Jedvaj as a teenager that he only made 14 senior appearances for Dinamo before being sold to Roma, who beat a host of European clubs to his signature.

The versatile defender, capable of playing across the backline, struggled to make an impact in the Italian capital and was allowed to leave for Bayer Leverkusen. After initally forcing his way into the starting line-up, Jedvaj endured a spell out of the team and went on loan to Augsburg. He is now at Lokomotiv Moscow.

Centre-back: Vedran Corluka

Age: 35
Dinamo Zagreb appearances: 79
Current club: Croatia (assistant manager to Zlatko Dalic)

Vedran Corluka joined the Dinamo Zagreb academy when he was eight years old and after excelling in the club’s youth team, he graduated to the senior side in 2003.

Over the next four years, he established himself as a key member of the side and earned a move to Manchester City before joining Tottenham and then Lokomotiv Moscow where he was briefly reunited with former Croatia manager Slaven Bilic. He is now the trusty No. 2 to Dalic with the national side.

At 35, we reckon Corluka could still do a job in the heart of this defence. Failing that, 19-year-old Josko Gvardiol recently completed a bumper move to RB Leipzig and looks set to be the future of Croatia’s defence.

Centre-back: Dejan Lovren

Age: 32
Dinamo Zagreb appearances: 60
Current club: Zenit Saint Petersburg

Dejan Lovren spent most of his youth growing up in Germany but when he was ten years old his family relocated to Zagreb. He turned out for a couple of local clubs upon moving to Croatia and his form alerted the attentions of Dinamo Zagreb’s scouts in 2004.

Following a successful three-year loan spell with Inter Zapresic, Lovren became a first-team player for Dinamo in the 2009/10 season and his outstanding displays culminated in a move to Lyon, where he played for three years before joining Southampton and then Liverpool. His Premier League story ended last year after he joined Zenit Saint Petersburg.

Left-back: Sime Vrsaljko

Age: 28
Dinamo Zagreb appearances: 96
Current club: Atletico Madrid

Another youngster who made a big impression when he first burst into the side is the attack-minded full-back Sime Vrsaljko, who made just shy of 100 appearances for the club.

Vrsaljko won four successive Croatian league titles before leaving for Italy where he represented Genoa and Sassuolo. Following a couple of productive campaigns with the latter, he moved to Atletico Madrid in 2016.

He then joined Inter on loan with an option to buy, but suffered an ACL injury and missed the second half of the 2018/19 campaign. Vrsaljko is now back at Atletico, contending with Kieran Trippier for the right-back spot.

Central midfield: Marcelo Brozovic

Age: 28
Dinamo Zagreb appearances: 99
Current club: Inter Milan

One of the few Croatians in this side who did not pass through Dinamo’s youth academy, Marcelo Brozovic instead started his career with Hrvatski Dragovoljac and also turned out for Lomotiva before achieving his big transfer to Dinamo.

He spent two seasons in Dinamo’s engine room and performed sufficiently well to earn a move to Inter Milan initially on loan and then on a permanent basis in 2016.

Central midfield: Luka Modric

Age: 36
Dinamo Zagreb appearances: 128
Current club: Real Madrid

The star of Croatia‘s current side, Luka Modric was the golden boy of Croatian football when he was first making his way in the game with Dinamo, although a loan spell to Bosnian side Zrinjski Mostar was also pivotal to his development.

Just prior to starring at Euro 2008, Modric joined Tottenham in a big-money deal and he became one of the leading midfielders in the Premier League during his four years at Spurs, leading to a move to Real Madrid. Modric was crucial to Croatia‘s run to the final at the 2018 World Cup and won the Ballon d’Or as a result.

Central midfield: Mateo Kovacic

Age: 27
Dinamo Zagreb appearances: 73
Current club: Chelsea

The obvious candidate to replace Modric for both club and country, Mateo Kovacic spent two years in the Dinamo first team and he showed such promise that Inter snapped him up in 2013.

Kovacic immediately became a prominent member of the Inter side and spent two seasons at the San Siro before moving on to Real Madrid in 2015. Although he was rarely a regular, Kovacic won the Champions League in his first season and repeated that feat twice more. He spent the 2018/19 season on loan at Chelsea, and joined the Blues permanently in 2019.

Right wing: Dani Olmo

Age: 23
Dinamo Zagreb appearances: 124
Current club: RB Leipzig

One of the most recent jewels in the crown at Dinamo and the last player in this XI to leave the club. Dani Olmo joined Dinamo’s academy from Barcelona in 2014 but it wasn’t long before he became part of the first team.

A wonderfully gifted player, Olmo was very much the star of the recent Dinamo team, scoring 34 goals and recording 28 assists across all competitions. Both his performances for Dinamo and the Spanish U21 side saw Olmo pique the interest of several clubs from across Europe, including a potential return to Barcelona. But it was RB Leipzig who won the signature of the 23-year-old, and his time in Germany has been exceptionally fruitful thus far.

Left wing: Marko Pjaca

Age: 26
Dinamo Zagreb appearances: 93
Current club: Torino (on loan from Juventus)

The arrivals of Gonzalo Higuain and Miralem Pjanic at Juventus at the time overshadowed Marko Pjaca’s arrival somewhat and a subsequent ACL injury saw him sidelined for six months but the player still has potential

A versatile attacker, capable of playing on either flank or in the No.10 role, Pjaca’s goalscoring ability is highlighted by an excellent return of 28 goals in 93 games for Dinamo. Following his injury at Juventus he was sent on loan to Schalke in January 2018 to help his recovery. He has spent the second half of the 2019/20 season on loan with Anderlecht and, since then, there have been further temporary stints at Genoa, and now Torino.

Striker: Mario Mandzukic

Age: 35
Dinamo Zagreb appearances: 128
Current club: Retired

Similar to Brozovic, Mario Mandzukic made his name elsewhere in Croatia with Marsonia and then NK Zagreb before joining Dinamo in 2007 aged 21.

It is with Dinamo that Mandzukic began to really flourish into a top-class centre forward as he struck 53 goals in 112 games, which led to a move to Wolfsburg.

Since then the towering frontman has gone on to play for European heavyweights Bayern Munich, Atletico Madrid, Juventus and AC Milan. After four Serie A titles, Mandzukic was moved on by Maurizio Sarri to Qatar before returning to the San Siro earlier this year, and then eventually bowing out.

He only recently called time on his playing career so Mandzukic is still firmly-prepped to lead any line, but we think Tottenham nemesis Mislav Orsic could also feature as a false nine here and do an exceptional job.