One dream has already come true for NK Maribor, but as they prepare to make their European knockout stage debut in the UEFA Europa League, the Slovenian champions are thinking bigger still.
Two-time UEFA Cup winners Sevilla FC represent daunting opponents for Ante Šimundža's side, but defender Mitja Viler reckons his team-mates are ready to throw a spanner in the works for their illustrious guests on Thursday. "We are certainly not heading into these matches waving a white flag," he told UEFA.com. "Actually, we are preparing to spring a surprise."
Spring-time European football was a surprise for many Maribor fans after the Slovene First League club made it through the group phase of this season's UEFA Europa League – and the novelty has not worn off. "For our club it is so strange to be preparing for European games during the winter break, as this will be the first time we have played a European game in February," Viler explained.
The 27-year-old is under no illusion about the task ahead. "Of course, Sevilla are favourites because they have some excellent players and they are used to playing tough matches in the Spanish Liga," noted Viler, who scored against Birkirkara FC in UEFA Champions League qualifying in July. "If you were to express it as a percentage, I would say the chance of us progressing is 60-40 against.
"We have been training for two weeks in Turkey," he added. "I'm really looking forward to Thursday, because I am sure we can at least be the equal of Sevilla. In Turkey we played a couple of friendlies, including against a very strong FC Shakhtar Donetsk side, which we lost 2-1. That showed we can compete with teams who are stronger than us on paper."
Maribor are stronger on paper than they were in December, with two Slovenian internationals – Legia Warszawa defender Marko Šuler and FK Austria Wien midfielder Dare Vršič – swelling the ranks. "The team is well prepared, with the newcomers fitting in well, on and off the field," Viler remarked.
All they need now is to give the performance of a lifetime – which is certainly what fans at the Stadion Ljudski vrt are hoping for. "Tickets for this game sold out immediately," beamed Viler. "Maribor cannot wait to get back into European football. I'm sure the crowd will spur us on to a great show. This tie with Sevilla is reward for us all – the club and the fans."
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