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Slovenia poised for photo finish

Published: Tuesday 23 March 2010, 10.03CET
Slovenia's return to the FIFA World Cup is dominating talk in Ljubljana but the First League is claiming some of the spotlight as champions NK Maribor and unfancied FC Koper vie for the title.
by Martin Pavcnik
from Ljubljana
Slovenia poised for photo finish
Maribor coach Darko Milanič ©Getty Images
Published: Tuesday 23 March 2010, 10.03CET

Slovenia poised for photo finish

Slovenia's return to the FIFA World Cup is dominating talk in Ljubljana but the First League is claiming some of the spotlight as champions NK Maribor and unfancied FC Koper vie for the title.

As they prepare for their second ever FIFA World Cup, the national team are dominating the football chat in Slovenia but the domestic First League is providing its share of intrigue. With ten games remaining two teams have emerged from the pack: champions NK Maribor and an FC Koper side seeking their first title.

Of the Prva Liga's ten clubs only four are still led by the coach they began the season with – it is of little surprise that Maribor's Darko Milanič and Koper's Nedžad Okčič are among them. As they approach the home straight their sides lead the way, with ten points separating third from second – nine-time Slovenian champions Maribor. Koper are five ahead; unfamiliar surrounds for a club that finished just a point above the relegation zone last term. It promises to be a fascinating finale.

It has been tit for tat all the way. Milanič announced his side were "still in the battle for the title" on Saturday after Dejan Mezga's goal helped them grind out victory at struggling NK IB Ljubljana. Twenty-four hours later Koper answered in kind, prevailing 2-0 against third-placed NK Nafta Lendava, and even if the scoreline does not reflect it Okčič conceded the stress is taking its toll. "We find it difficult playing under pressure," he said, "but we have to keep winning to maintain our lead."

That pressure will ratchet up a notch on 30 April when the leading pair meet for the final time this season in Nova Gorica, Koper's temporary home while their own ground is rebuilt. Honours are even between the sides so far this season. Their first two meetings brought away wins, 2-1 to Koper, 3-1 to Maribor, while on 6 March they shared four goals with Vito Plut among the scorers.

Plut is one of three former Koper players in the Maribor ranks alongside Aleš Mejač and Aleš Mertelj, while Amir Karič and Mitja Brulc have gone the other way, swapping purple and yellow for blue and yellow. The 36-year-old Karič and fellow Koper midfielder Miran Pavlin, 38, need no introduction to Milanič and Maribor sporting director Zlatko Zahovič: the quartet were all team-mates in Slovenia's first foray on to the international stage at UEFA EURO 2000. You cannot keep talk away from the national team for too long.

Last updated: 23/03/10 9.03CET

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