Saturday will see NK Olimpija Ljubljana resume their PrvaLiga campaign, with an ex-Liverpool winger enjoying a dominant start in charge.
Things could not have got off to a worse start for Albert Riera, whose first press conference as Olimpija Ljubljana boss was abandoned after it was gatecrashed by mask-wearing ultras.
But seven months on, the Spaniard has defied a disastrous introduction, with fans voicing their concerns over the club’s ownership, and now has his side top of the PrvaLiga.
Olimpija are 13 points clear of FC Koper in the Slovenian top flight, ahead of its resumption following a two-month winter break.
With 20 games played, they have won 15, drawn three and lost only two.
Their last outing before the break also brought their biggest win of the season so far, thrashing NK Tabor Sezana 8-0 with seven different goalscorers – including two own goals.
Saturday brings a meeting with NK Bravo, who inflicted a 6-1 defeat on Olimpija back in October but are currently seventh in the 10-team league and 26 points behind Riera’s side.
It is a remarkable start to life as a manager from a player who spent two years with Liverpool between 2008 and 2010, making 56 appearances before departing in acrimonious circumstances after public criticism of Rafa Benitez.
In an interview with The Athletic in September, Riera expressed regret at the manner of his exit, insisting he now takes a different approach with his players.
“It was total frustration on my part, but it was nothing against Rafa,” he said.
“Players are selfish, you always think you have to play, but a manager can only play 11.
“You don’t have to like the decisions, but you should respect them. I tell my players, ‘do you really think I’d do something against the group? Like you, I want to win’.”
Riera is rightly receiving praise for his input at Olimpija so far, with Total Football Analysis noting the influence of compatriot Pep Guardiola on his system at the Slovenian club.
There are still 16 games to play in the PrvaLiga, but the club from the capital are undoubtedly favourites to win the league.
If they do so come May, it would be Olimpija’s first title since 2017/18 and only the third in the top flight through their short, 18-year history.
Their last trophy was the Pokal Slovenije in 2020/21, with a last-16 tie against NK Nafta 1903 still to come in March as Riera and his players eye a potential double.
As a player, Riera was a three-time league winner, twice with Galatasaray and once with Olympiakos, while he also lifted the Turkish Super Cup with Galatasaray and the Copa del Rey with Real Mallorca.
But guiding Olimpija to the title in his first season as a manager, after the controversy surrounding those early days in charge, may just top the lot.