Runners-up last season, NK Maribor appear to have everything in place to go one better in this term's Slovene First League.
The championship may be just three weeks old but Darko Milanič's side have already caught the eye domestically and in Europe. Not only are they second in the Prva Liga with a game in hand on leaders NK Nafta, but they are targeting a place in the UEFA Europa League group stage after a third qualifying round win against Scottish team Hibernian FC set up a play-off against US Città di Palermo. Considering the club's improved organisation and infrastructure, sporting director Zlatko Zahovič's optimism is understandable.
"We are becoming a pan-Slovenian club and are seeing progress at every level," he said. "I don't think I've ever felt so positive as in recent months. Our goal is to bring the best players – especially young ones – to the best-run club in Slovenia. Maribor should be a springboard for the top local players."
Indeed, the new campaign has already been lit up by the potential of 22-year-old Josip Illičič, a summer signing from relegated Interblock Ljubljana. Midfielder Illičič made his Maribor debut last month and has since earned a first international call-up for Slovenia's 11 August friendly against Australia, making him the flagship player in the exciting future Zahovič envisages.
Despite having such rude health on and off the field, Maribor accept that their status as the top flight's only undefeated side at this early stage matters little. Titleholders FC Koper are sure to find their stride after a solitary win in four fixtures, while former champions NK Domžale and ND Gorica know what it takes to play the long game.
Traditional powerhouses NK Olimpija Ljubljana, though, are still to register a victory and languish bottom of the table. Solace can be found in the capital club's new stadium, which will be officially inaugurated for the Australia match before being graced by Maribor in September. Milanič's charges will hope to be frontrunners by then – and still flying the Slovene flag in Europe.
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