Opportunity and recognition, that's all a soccer player can ask for. Nikica Jelavic, the Croatian striker for Rapid Vienna - Hapoel Tel Aviv's Europa League opponent tonight - is no different.
Like many Croatian strikers, he is tall, 1.88 meters, and has superior technique. The 24-year-old's obvious talent was first spotted nine years ago by scouts for Croatia's Hajduk Split, who convinced the adolescent to move from his hometown of Capljina in Bosnia's Croat borderlands to Split, the largest city on Croatia's Dalmatian coast.
At just 17, he was already playing for Hajduk's senior team, then shortly after, on Croatia's under-19 national side.
After an uneventful season at Belgium's Zulte Waregem, Jelavic seems to have finally found his place with Vienna, the most successful club in Austria's Bundesliga with 32 championship trophies in its case.
With the departure of Stefan Maierhofer to Wolverhampton and Erwin "Jimmy" Hoffer to Napoli, Rapid coach Peter Pacult found himself in a bind. His solution was to make Jelavic the centerpiece of his offense.
The Croatian has not disappointed. He has already scored four goals in the young Bundesliga season, and been a crucial component of Rapid's successful start to Europa League play.
With two games played by all teams in Group C, Vienna leads with four points, with Hamburg and Hapoel locked at second with three points, and Scotland's Celtic at bottom with one.
Soccer observers in Europe insist Jelavic will break out this season, both in Austria and with his expected debut with the senior national team.
"I'm very happy at Rapid Vienna, and even though I don't understand German, I'm learning," Jelavic says.
While Rapid lacks the star power of Hamburg or the budget of Celtic, the player says it has all it needs to remain on top of the pack throughout the group stage: "We have camaraderie, and we have good players. We are a good club."
After scoring at Celtic Park and in Hamburg, the Croatian now seeks to leave his mark on Tel Aviv's Bloomfield Stadium.
"I want to score, that's clear, but most important is that we get some points," he said. "It doesn't matter who scores the goals."
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