For the players and fans of NK Gorica, the late drama of last season's championship will still be fresh in the memory when the 14th Slovenian First League kicks off this weekend.
After a three-team title race that was prolonged until the last day of the campaign, Gorica took the crown from NK Maribor for their first championship in eight years. More than that, their blend of team spirit, hard work and a no-star system captivated the vast majority of football watchers.
The good news for Gorica is that, Robert Tezacki apart, coach Pavel Pinni has retained his squad, while new signings Andrej Komac from NK Primorje and Marko Suler from NK Dravograd will boost their chances of a successful title defence.
Youth and experience
Maribor, their sequence of seven successive titles at an end, should provide the main threat to the champions. Several players - Darko Djukic, Marinko Sarkezi and Enes Mesanovic - have departed this summer but coach Matjaz Kek has brought in Sasa Bozicic (FC Koper) and Andrej Kvas (NK Publikum) to complement the experienced Ales Ceh and Stipe Balajic and a host of younger players.
However, much will depend on the form and fitness of striker Damir Pekic, injured towards the end of last season and sorely missed during the run-in.
The third team in contention last year, NK Olimpija Ljubljana, have prepared for another title tilt with a batch of late signings by new coach Milivo Bracum, who has replaced Suad Besirevic. Zoran Pavlovic, Bostjan Ceasr, Darijan Matic (Koper), and Sani Trgo and Janez Zavrl (NK Ljubljana) have arrived but centre-forward Marco Kmetec, goalkeeper Borut Mavric and Slovenian international Mladen Rudonja have all left the club that finished one point behind Gorica last term.
While the top three should make the running, NK Mura could well be the dark horses. Fifth-placed last season, and with former national coach Bojan Prasnikar newly in charge, Mura have strengthened their defence with the addition of Slovenia's Spasoje Bulajic and also drafted in Sebastjan Berko, Mitja Ernisa and Marko Bozic.
NK Drava and NK Domžale have recruited heavily too but Koper and Ljubljana will need to solve their financial problems before they can compete properly. Publikum should improve under new coach Ivan Matkovic while Primorje will be led by Darko Milanic, the Slovenia captain at UEFA EURO 2000™.
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