NK Maribor are taking nothing for granted in their Slovenian title campaign despite heading into the two-month winter break with a comfortable lead at the top of the 1. Liga.
Solid in all departments, Darko Milanič's side have also been able to draw on a talented substitutes' bench and plenty of vocal home support in their rise to the top. The winning combination has instilled self-confidence which has helped Maribor move four points clear of second-placed NK Celje, losing just two of their 20 games along the way. Yet despite the optimism surrounding his team's prospects as they look ahead to the restart on 21 February, Milanič was keeping both feet firmly on the ground. "I think we deserve to be top for the first part of the season and it's nice to go on a winter break as league leaders," he said. "But this is no guarantee for the title. We know we'll have to work very hard over the winter if we're to hold on to this position in the second part of the season."
Captain Zoran Pavlović added: "It's great to be top. The fans in Maribor have been waiting for a league title for the past five years and we can feel the anticipation growing all the time. But we also know the end of the season is still a very long way away. That said, we're all determined to work hard and try and win this title." Club management also sense a real opportunity and have promised supporters they will try to keep the squad together in their bid for an eighth league title.
Though transfer moves during the winter break could change things, Maribor's main rival in the 10-team division looks like being Celje, a side from Slovenia's third-largest city and who are gunning for their first title. Though they had a few problems in the early stages of the season, coach Slaviša Stojanović has welded together a consistent, well-balanced side. Off the pitch, though, things have been more problematic with president Marjan Vengust, general manager Franci Pliberšek and sporting director Simon Sešlar all leaving the club within the space of a month.
The battle to avoid relegation centres on the bottom trio of NK Drava, NK Primorje and FC Koper, with seventh-placed NK Rudar Velenje so far steering clear of trouble. All three clubs below Velenje have been better-placed in previous seasons but have since lost key players and had to contend with financial problems. At the end of the season, the bottom club will be relegated while the ninth-placed side will face the second division's runners-up in a play-off for a place in the top-flight.
There has been little to cheer either for the champions of the past two seasons, NK Domžale. Fourteen points behind Maribor and cut adrift in sixth place, they have just eight points more than basement club Koper. Domžale started the season well enough, but failed to sustain the momentum built up under former coach Stojanović and ex-manager Nenad Protega. New coach Robert Pevnik ran into difficulties and was sacked in November, with former Koper boss Vlado Badzim brought in as his replacement and promptly steering the side to three consecutive draws before the winter break. Like many of his Slovenian rivals, come February, Badzim will be hoping for better things from his side.
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