Rise of Chelsea and Leicester transfer target Andrej Kramaric of Rijeka
Striker Andrej Kramaric is set to join Leicester City's bid to stay in the Premier League, preferring regular first-team football over the lure of Premier League leaders Chelsea. It marks the latest high point in his rise through the footballing ranks.
Kramaric could have been involved in a sensational and historic transfer almost four years ago, after Robert Prosinecki was named the new coach of Red Star Belgrade. Prosinecki moved from Dinamo Zagreb to Red Star himself back in 1987, as a 18-year-old who was looking for playing time, and that is exactly what he had in mind for the young striker who struggled to get enough minutes at the club that raised him.
Had the deal been struck, Kramaric would have become the first Croat to play in the Serbian league since the breakup of Yugoslavia.
Zdravko Mamic, the infamously controversial Dinamo Zagreb owner, was having none of it. He refused even to negotiate with the Serbian giants in April 2011, and stated very clearly: "Andrej is not going -- neither to Belgrade nor anywhere else."
A lot of clubs were interested in the young prodigy back then, including Felix Magath's Wolfsburg, having successfully signed Mario Mandzukic from Zagreb back in 2010 for 7 million euros. Some were certain that Kramaric is even more talented, and there were good reasons to believe so.
For starters, Andrej has been a goal machine all his life. He counted every single goal he scored in the youth teams for Dinamo and there were 452 of those. At the age of 18, Kramaric was given the No. 9 shirt at his club, which is a huge compliment since it was worn by the very best strikers the club has witnessed through the years, from the legendary Drazan Jerkovic in the '50s to the phenomenal Davor Suker in the beginning of the '90s.
Kramaric scored at will from the bench in his first season, but strangely his luck changed completely just after Mandzukic left for Germany. Instead of succeeding him in the starting lineup, the youngster stopped getting chances in the first team, as older and less talented players were preferred. Eventually, Kramaric was loaned out to Lokomotiva Zagreb, the farm team that is rather bizarrely allowed to play in the first division alongside Dinamo, and duly netted 20 times in 44 league matches.
Upon returning to Dinamo in the summer of 2013, Kramaric discovered that his way was still blocked by Duje Cop, who was used as a lone striker, while Algerian El Arbi Soudani was signed to play on the wing.
That was too much for the youngster, who expressed his frustration to the press, and Dinamo's management escalated the conflict by accusing the striker of hurting the team's chances ahead of their Champions League qualifier against Austria Vienna. The crisis was solved by selling Kramaric to Rijeka, which was almost unthinkable.
Zagreb owner Mamic is known for his outstanding ability to make profits on players from all around Croatia, but this time he let one of his most exciting prospects leave without significant compensation. After refusing to sell Kramaric to the likes of West Ham, who were known to be interested for a long period, he presented him to the team that aspires to replace Hajduk Split as Dinamo's biggest rivals.
This amazing decision did Rijeka a huge favour in more ways than one. Firstly, they enjoyed the extraordinary goal-scoring form of Andrej for a year and a half. Secondly, the remarkable profit they are about to make on him -- estimated at 11.5 million euros after they spent in the region on 1 million euros to acquire him -- will bring them much closer to Dinamo from a financial point of view.
Things simply couldn't have gone better as far as Kramaric himself is concerned, ever since he scored the winner against Slaven Belupo on his debut. In Matiaz Kek, the wily Slovenian who led his national team to 2010 World Cup qualification, the young striker has finally found the coach who believed in his abilities and was willing to build the team around him.
Last season he was good, with 27 goals in 34 games in all competitions. In October 2013, Kramaric became the first ever Croat to score eight goals in a single game when Rijeka thrashed tiny Blato 11-0 in the Croatian Cup. This term he is simply sensational, averaging more than a goal a game in the league (21 goals in 18 matches). Add seven goals in 12 Europa League fixtures, including a hat trick in a 3-1 win over Feyenoord, and you get one of the most in-form strikers anywhere in Europe.
Then, at long last, he was also called up by the national team. Had his development gone according to plan in the previous years, Kramaric would have certainly been included in the World Cup squad last summer, but his inexperience counted against him. With the new qualifying campaign about to start, Croatia coach Niko Kovac gave the 23-year-old a chance to prove himself in August, and he duly did so, scoring on his competitive debut against Malta.
Kovac claims that Kramaric reminds him of Suker, and that is a great honour for someone who has admired the former Real Madrid striker all his life, trying to emulate him. Remarkably, however, his feet have remained firmly on the ground despite such comparisons.
"Andrej is a low profile and quiet person. He is a polite and good mannered guy, but has a strong personality at the same time", Rijeka journalist Daniel Vukusic tells ESPN FC. "He doesn't go partying and never shows off his money. He is dedicated and very professional in every training session. Whoever signs him, will get a great person as well as a talented modern striker."
Goran Grudic, one of Rijeka fan group leaders, added: "Kramaric is very down to earth and modest, and that's why fans really love him. He is a clean player too, without a single red card in his entire career. Taking both his skills and his character into consideration, you are looking at a player who will be more than welcome in any squad."
Moving to Chelsea would have been a huge step for the Croat, but having experienced frustration on Dinamo bench he strives to play on weekly basis. That is probably one of the most important reasons that Kramaric is set to sign for Leicester City, where he can become the undisputed star, instead on joining the endless list of Stamford Bridge loanees all around the continent.
The Foxes desperately need a penalty box predator, and while Kramaric is yet to prove himself in a top league, he is more than capable of giving them a big push in their bid against the drop.
Michael Yokhin is ESPN FC's European football writer. Follow him on Twitter: @Yokhin