As he determinedly jogged back up field to the centre circle, Goran Milović accepted the onrush of high fives and back slaps from his celebrating teammates with a level of enthusiasm that almost bordered on stoicism.
The Hajduk Split captain had just threaded a deft shot through a teeming penalty area, perfectly finding the gap between bodies and post to guide the ball into the bottom right corner of the Slaven net.
It was the second Hajduk goal in the space of ten minutes and completed a two goal comeback from the home side. Joy burst from all corners of the Poljud, but Goran was in no mood for over-celebration.
Perhaps he’s tired of celebrating, perhaps he’s even tired of football. Whilst most of Western Europe gears up for kick off in the coming weeks, Croatia’s First League season is already four matches old, add in five Europa League qualifying matches and what results is a hectic summer for Hajduk; nine matches in the last 31 days. Oh, and goals. Lots and lots of goals.
Milović’s 70th minute equaliser was the 33rd in matches involving Hajduk this season. An average of over 3.5 a game. High scoring ties have worked for Hajduk in the Europa League, they passed through the first and second qualifying rounds with aggregate scores of 7-3 and 6-4 respectively.
Matches in the Croatian league the following Sunday have proved much trickier. The side are yet to register a win and were hammered 4-1 in Pula the previous week.
Tottenham Hotspur fans, cynical Premier League managers and seasoned gamblers all know what happens to teams on the Sunday afternoon following a Europa League game on Thursday night. They struggle. It’s one of the many reasons English clubs seem so averse to serious participation in the competition.
The phenomenon seemed in full effect even on Sunday evening as Slaven Belupo raced into a two goal lead inside the opening half hour. A calamitous start caused by fatigue according Hajduk manager Damir Buric, who described their schedule as ‘incredibly exhausting’, especially for such a young side. Milović is the old man of the team at 26, three teenagers were in the starting line up against Slaven.
Post-Europa League Weariness Syndrome (PELWS) wasn’t the only cause of Hajduk’s undoing though, cavalier defending also played its role. Whilst nominally lining up in a Mourinho approved 4-2-3-1, Hajduk attacks this season often seem to feature all five midfielders and both full backs, bodies hurtling towards the penalty area without a care for what’s left behind.
This exuberant approach has created some wonderful goals but has also often left Milović and his central defensive partner Marko Pejic squinting up field, wondering what stands between them and a counter attack.
The answer is often nothing. As it was when Slaven midfielder Ljuban Crepulja picked up the ball 35 yards from goal. Milović was drawn out to the man and bypassed by an immaculately executed one-two, leaving Crepulja through on goal and free to slot cleanly into the corner.
The same was true again when Jefferson, harried into a backwards pass, sloppily tried to find his captain. Instead he found Slaven’s Filip Ozobić who three touches later scored his team’s second.
Amazingly, Buric’s solution to his side’s struggles was to replace the ailing Jefferson with the more attacking Elvir Maloku, offering even less protection to Goran’s weary defensive line.
Miraculously, it worked. The second half saw a total turnaround as Hajduk overwhelmed their opponents with bodies, managing to keep the ball stuck in enemy territory and blocking routes back into their half.
Maloku himself scored the first with an exquisite chip before right back Fran Tudor jinked into the crowded box and picked out a relieved Milović for his redemptive equaliser.
Four days later, Goran was putting his boots back on again, ready to lead Hajduk into yet another fixture. The second leg of the Europa League’s third qualifying round against Norwegian side Strømsgodset, who had overcome their own bout of PELWS with a storming 6-0 win in the Arctic Circle against Tromsø the previous weekend.
Hajduk took a 2-0 lead with them to Norway and defended it from the first whistle, a bold move for a side that had conceded seven goals in the previous two rounds. Fortunately for Hajduk, Strømsgodset lacked the irreverence and incisiveness of Slaven and were restricted to shots from range in the first half.
Hajduk were looking comfortable until a Zoran Nižić red card eight minutes into the second half handed the Norwegians a lifeline. Strømsgodset instantly began to swarm forward with a rash vigour that must have seemed strangely familiar their opponents.
Two minutes after the dismissal, a lengthy clearance from Jefferson left Hajduk striker Frank Ohandza battling with another stranded centre back, this time Stromgodset’s Marius Høibråten. Ohandza beat him to the ball and burst through the middle before squaring to Mijo Caktaš who had time to control the ball before finishing tidily.
Another breakaway Ohandza run ended the tie as a contest, this time the Cameroonian adding the finishing touch himself to score a spectacular goal. Hajduk now have 17 in six Europa League matches this season.
They barely have time to pat themselves on the back. After returning from Norway, Hajduk travel to Zagreb on Monday for a Crotian First League tussle with Lokomotiva.
This is quickly followed by the Derby of the Adriatic in Rijeka next Saturday and a midweek trip to the Czech Republic to battle with Slovan Liberec for a place in the Europa League group stage.
Three more games separated by over 1000 kilometres in ten hot, sweaty days. A sticky summertime football frenzy for the boys from the Dalmatian coast.