There’s always been plenty of debate on the inclusion of teams from the smaller European leagues in the Champions League Group stage. Considered to be whipping boys, any success is considered a surprise. However, teams are often guilty of underestimating such opponents. After 2 rounds of the group stage, NK Maribor have ensured that Chelsea and indeed, Europe will not make that mistake.
“Mari… wo?” (Maribor, where?) wrote Spiegel on the day of the Champions League second round clash between Schalke 04 and NK Maribor. The Germans, encouraged by two consecutive league victories and an away draw at Stamford Bridge in the Champions League first round, expected three easy points. Anything less would be a disappointment. Schalke’s coach Jens Keller even said that Schalke are a renewed force now after Saturday’s derby win versus rival Borussia Dortmund. “We have to take three points. We are favourites, no doubt about that. But we also know that things don’t happen by themselves” Keller said at the press conference before Tuesday’s match. Mathematics was easy: one point plus three points are four points and Group G’s leading position for the Royal Blues from Gelsenkirchen. The pole position was there for the taking, but it turned out that the upcoming mission was much more difficult as expected.
The Slovene outfit shook off the early pressure at Veltins-Arena and played a very good, disciplined and tight match, despite leaving the possession to the opponent (61% vs 39%). On target shots statistics was balanced (4 vs 4) at the end and so was the final score 1-1. It was Damjan Bohar, Maribor’s lightning fast winger who broke the deadlock in the 38th minute. Klaas-Jan Huntelaar levelled the score after the interval. The expectations of Schalke fans grew in the second half, but Jasmin Handanović, Inter’s Samir Handanović’s cousin, justified his famous surname with some brilliant saves. The match ended in 1-1 draw.
“Schalke enttäuscht gegen Maribor” (Schalke’s disappointment versus Maribor), wrote Spiegel after the game. Bild went even further with an underestimating (but partially true) title: “Shame versus Slovene dwarf!” The Germans, undisputed favourites for this match, apparently didn’t do their homework thoroughly enough. Julian Draxler admitted he googled Maribor before the match, but wasn’t impressed. He didn’t really recognize the purple-shirted names of the opposite players. That changed after Tuesday’s Champions League night in Gelsenkirchen. Maribor stunned Schalke, just as they did Sporting Lisbon a few weeks ago. Jasmin Handanović is now a known name in Gelsenkirchen (and Lisbon too), so are Damjan Bohar, Aleksander Rajčević, Agim Ibraimi, Mitja Viler…
“I don’t know if we can press on in the group, but Chelsea and the other teams will now see that Maribor from Slovenia play very good football. This is the best competition in the world, so we are proud to be playing in it,” Maribor’s left-back Mitja Viler said after the encounter.
Maribor, with two points from two games (1-1 draws versus Sporting and Schalke), are no longer anonymous in the Champions League. Three consecutive Europa League group stage outings and some prestigious scalps (Glasgow Celtic, Maccabi Tel Aviv, Wigan, Glasgow Rangers, etc) added some references to Maribor’s name. But it is this season’s success that has really put Maribor and Slovenia on Europe’s elite football map. Even Jose Mourinho, Chelsea’s controversial manager, who will face Maribor in the third and fourth round of the competition, admitted that Maribor are much more than just group outsiders.
“We now play two games against Maribor and, if we manage to secure six points, that would be 10 and job done. Now we have to focus on beating Maribor, which I believe is not easy. To draw in Germany means something,” Mourinho said, knowing that he is facing two quite known names working for the Slovenian champions. Maribor’s sporting director Zlatko Zahović is a very big name in Portugal, where he played for Vitoria Guimaraes, Porto and Benfica. His assistant Miran Pavlin even played under Mourinho in his Porto coaching years. The two, sitting firmly at Maribor’s helm, already showed through the years they certainly are no pushovers.
It was Zlatko Zahović, who saved Maribor from bankruptcy. In 2007, when he took over as a sporting director, the club was drowning in red numbers. With mediocre squad, dated infrastructure and a totally empty bank account Maribor couldn’t ask for more. A former star player, on of the best Slovenian footballers of all times, invested his name, knowledge and hundreds of working hours into this project. In seven years he managed to clear the debts, sell some players, raise some talents and – what is most important – bring results. Zahović, Pavlin joined him later, built the most successful Slovenian club (12 domestic titles) and, with three Europa League group stage qualifications and this year’s Champions League qualification, even the most successful football club in the football rich Balkan region at the moment.
“I’m sure that our opponents won’t underestimate us,” Zahović said after the Champions League group stage draw. Well, they did. But Jose Mourinho is no Marco Silva or Jens Keller and Maribor is no forgotten underdog. At least not anymore.
Written by Miran Zore