Alex Holiga provides the lowdown on Chelsea's Champions League opponents NK Maribor...
Who are they?
Slovenian champions on a four-year title-winning streak and Europa League-dwellers for the previous three seasons before defeating Zrinjski Mostar, Maccabi Tel Aviv and Celtic to reach the Champions League group stage.
But they’ve been here once before – back in 1999 – when with current manager Ante Simundza as their star striker they managed to gather four points against Dynamo Kiev and Bayer Leverkusen.
Now they’re already halfway to equalling that feat, having drawn against Sporting Lisbon at home and Schalke away. Maribor are still unbeaten this season in Europe – not too shabby for a club from a city about the size of Worcester, a nation of just two million and a league currently ranked 28th in Europe by UEFA.
NK Maribor were only founded in 1960 and the story of how they came to life makes for a great – if distinctly bizarre – conversation starter at dinner parties. That year, another club from Maribor, NK Branik, reached the final of the promotion play-offs for the Yugoslav Second Division.
They lost 2-0 away against Croatian side NK Karlovac, but the return leg was never played because Karlovac players were poisoned in Maribor ahead of the game: someone had put something in their pancakes.
The whole squad was hospitalised with a severe case of diarrhoea and – although the true culprit remains unknown to this day – the hosts were disgraced, the club disqualified and disbanded.
In its place came a new one, simply named NK Maribor (NK stands for Football Club). They adopted Fiorentina’s purple colour because they wanted to be ‘different’ and spent five seasons in the Yugoslav top flight between 1967 and 1972, but remained in the shadows of their local rivals, Olimpija Ljubljana. It was only after Slovenia’s independence that they caught up with the boys from the capital and soon eclipsed them.
Maribor’s motto is ‘One club, one honour’ (En klub, ena cast). They play their home games at the 12,994 Ljudski vrt (People’s Garden) stadium, but also boast a very faithful and passionate fanbase.
The squad is exceptionally strong psychologically. Many underdogs tend to fall apart after conceding, but not Maribor: they perform extremely well under pressure, maybe because they feel very little of it.
Group stage qualification alone made them more money than is their complete annual budget and virtually anything they do after that is a bonus.
The squad hasn’t changed much over the years – the club can’t afford expensive signings and doesn’t get many big offers for their players, either – so there’s a very real cohesion and team spirit.
The obvious lack of true individual quality. Against Chelsea, Maribor will be seriously handicapped in one-on-one matchups. They struggle to hold on to the ball or create from open play when faced with a stronger opponent, so leaving the initiative to the other team is not a matter of choice – it’s a necessity.
Maribor can play both 4-4-2 and 4-2-3-1. But for the most part in Europe, the formation looks more like 4-4-1-1, with Agim Ibraimi playing off Marcos Tavares up front and wingers Dare Vrsic and Damjan Bohar withdrawn to create a flat midfield four. The team defends in compact, solid two banks of four, counting on quick attacking transition mainly through the overlapping flanks. They are reactive, not negative; industrious and disciplined when defending, but increasingly daring, even cocky, in attack.
“Jesus is the way” – Marcos Tavares, the 30-year-old Brazilian forward, keeps repeating whenever he talks to the press. Since coming to Maribor six-and-a-half years ago, he has found his peace there and made it a home for his numerous family. He’s the only player in the team who was never for sale and decided to stay in order to “do good deeds and help people,” as he says.
He has certainly helped Maribor a lot, recording 123 goals and 67 assists. Earlier this year he became the top scorer in club history, despite playing much of the time as a second striker or attacking midfielder.
Tavares is a highly efficient player who can outmuscle defenders playing with his back to goal, score from half-chances or make key passes. A treasure for the team.
Well... nothing, really – at least not on the continental scale. In England, the link is Darko Milanic, the Leeds United gaffer who managed the Slovenian champions for five years until 2013, with current Maribor manager Ante Simundza his assistant in three of those seasons.
But in the neighbouring countries, Maribor is best known not for any player, manager or event in its history – the team’s true star is Zlatko Zahovic, the director of football.
Previously a key player for the national team who plied his trade at Partizan Belgrade, Porto, Olympiacos, Valencia and Benfica, Zahovic took over at Maribor in 2007, when the club was on the verge of bankruptcy. He managed to clear debts, consolidate business, develop the youth academy and, importantly, bring results.
Most recently, another member of the Zahovic family has been attracting media attention. Zlatko’s son, the 18-year-old striker Luka, might just be the biggest prospect to come out of the Maribor youth academy. He scored seven goals in 10 league matches this season, but also one against Sporting Lisbon.
Maribor may have been around for more than half a century, but their truly significant history starts in 1997 when they first won the Slovenian league. Besides Tavares, who might well be given a monument outside Ljudski park once he retires, one player from that era is the only name deserving of a ‘legend’ status.
It’s Stipe Balajic, the former captain who played as defender or a midfielder between 1998 and 2005. The Croatian never really made it in his own country, but Maribor had his shirt number retired in his honour. ‘You don’t touch the number 19,’ is the popular saying among fans.