A capacity crowd, a finely poised tie and the carrot of a place in the UEFA Champions League play-offs has ensured excitement in the city of Maribor has reached fever pitch this week.
NK Maribor welcome Maccabi Haifa FC to the Stadion Ljudski vrt on Wednesday looking to overturn the 2-1 defeat they suffered in last week's third qualifying round first leg. Though without suspended defender Arghus, the hosts head into a potentially season-defining fixture with a clean bill of health.
"Arghus is suspended, but the situation is good," said coach Darko Milanič. "Aleksander Rajčević and Jovan Vidovič are completely ready, Martin Milec is getting better every game and Aleš Mejač can go straight into the team at any time. I'm not worried about the strength or organisation of our defence."
Aggregate victory against Maccabi Haifa would ensure Maribor of a UEFA Europa League group stage berth at the very least. "We will go into quarantine to lift the pressure of the environment here in Maribor," said Milanič. "There is a really difficult match in front of us, but we have a very good opportunity to prolong our stay in Europe. Considering our good performance in Israel we can be optimistic.
"There are 90 long minutes waiting for us. In fact, at least 90 minutes, the match might last even longer. We will have the full support of the stadium, which is very important in such contests. Our approach must be the same as it was in Haifa. We must be very focused and we must not concede any soft goals."
The recent arrival of experienced goalkeeper Jasmin Handanovič from Serie B side Empoli FC has meant that any such goals have been kept to a minimum. Aged 33, Handanovič has helped to instil great confidence in the team from defence through to attack. However miserly they prove at the back, though, Maribor are all too aware that they must score to extend their latest European adventure.
Indeed, their opponents arrived in northern Slovenia on Tuesday afternoon in the knowledge that a clean sheet will suffice for them to earn a place in Friday’s draw. Though strengthened by the return to the squad of Gustavo Boccoli, Seidu Yahaya and Yaniv Katan, Elisha Levi's charges will no doubt be wary of a Maribor side so evidently brimming in confidence.
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