When Maribor lost their main man Dare Vrsic in summer not many fans expected Maribor can actually do something in Europe this season, especially considering they failed to make it to a group stage in last two seasons. They had a pretty bad preseason as well, losing last two friendlies against Croatian Inter Zapresic and Russian Krasnodar ahead of their first qualifying game in Europe. They started their Europan campaign in Bosnia against Zrinjski, where club legend Tavares converted a last minute penalty to give Maribor an important away win.
Maribor managed to hold Zrinjski off at home to progress to next round with a 3:2 victory, where they met Icelandic Hafnarfjordur. Maribor only managed to convert one of several chances into a goal at home, that Tavares’ header was enough for a minimal 1-0 win and they had an interesting second leg to play in Iceland, where the legend had struck again – his 92nd minute, 168th goal for Maribor was enough for another 1:0 victory and that guaranteed them at least an Europa League group stage! Who else than Tavares, who is now by far the best scorer in Europa and Champions League qualifications with 21 goals, opened the scoring in Champions League play-off away against Hapoel Be’er Sheva who had an impressive Europa League campaign last season.
Be’er Sheva deservedly managed to make a comeback to win 2:1 in Israel, so it was all open in Slovenia. Maribor could hardly started any better in Slovenia, an early powerful shot by LB Viler made it 1-0 (2-2 on aggregate), a lead which was enough for Maribor to progress on away goals. But the Israeli side didn’t give up easily, went all in in the dying minutes and their biggest chance was parried away by 39 year old Jasmin Handanovic in 90th minute and that turned out to be decisive – Maribor is in the Champions League!
The squad was changed quite a bit in summer. Apart from mentioned Vrsic (who was also voted as player of the season last year in Slovenia), their best attacker Novakovic ended his succesful career, their best defender Defendi didn’t extend his contract and winger Sallalich also didn’t extend his contract, so they had to get their replacements somewhere – Ahmedi was promoted from Maribor B, wingers Bohar and Bajde got more playing time as the formation was changed from 4-4-2 diamond with no wingers to 4-2-3-1 with two wingers and they made only two signings before the qualifications, attacker Mesanovic from Zrinjski and CB Billong from Rudar, both joined as free agents.
Eventually they also re-signed RB Milec who was clearly an upgrade to their current RB Palcic, Milec is their youth product who returned to Slovenia from his spells in Benelux, because as he said »he missed two Champions Leagues, but he won’t miss the third one!«. They have signed two more players during September’s international break, they finally found an agreement with Vrsic and also got Lior Inbrum on loan from Gent as he has something special that current players don’t have – being great at 1 on 1! Maribor has a mix of experience and youth, but it’s mainly experience though.
In goal, there is irreplacable Jasmin Handanovic (39), Martin Milec (25) doing great on right back, a very experienced CB duo Marko Suler (34) and Aleksander Rajcevic (30), while Mitja Viler (31) who made his Slovenia debut this month will play at LB. In midfield there are Israeli Marwan Kaba (26), Blaz Vrhovec (25) and home grown Aleks Pihler (23) who are getting equal playing time this season.
A lot of players are rotating at 3 positions behind the forward, but it was mainly Gregor Bajde (23), Albanian Valon Ahmedi (22), Damjan Bohar (25) and Dino Hotic (22) playing there in the qualifications, with Slovenian-Brazilian Marcos Tavares (33) leading the front line. Maribor was drawn into a group with Liverpool, Sevilla and Russian champions Spartak, a tough group where Maribor is an obvious outsider, which might actually be a good thing as it appears they are playing better when they are not favorites. Nevertheless, anything except finishing last in the group will be a big surprise, but they can certainly cause some problems to everyone.
Photo: Mitja Novak