If anyone had started to doubt NK Maribor's UEFA Europa League Group D credentials, those suspicions were quelled on matchday three when they defeated SV Zulte Waregem 3-1 in Bruges.
Despite falling behind early on and playing the remaining 33 minutes with ten men, goals from Matic Črnic, Aleš Mertelj and Dejan Mezga ensured Maribor made an eye-catching statement of intent and trimmed the gap on second-placed Wigan Athletic FC to two points. It was also their first away success in a competition whose group phase they first graced in 2011.
However, just when it seemed Zulte Waregem would come up against a Maribor team filled with confidence in Thursday's return fixture, the Slovenian title holders surrendered top spot in their domestic league by losing 2-1 at home to bottom club ND Triglav at the weekend. "We try to learn something from every defeat. To lose at home against Krka was a really painful experience but Thursday's game will be completely different," said coach Ante Šimundža, who is empowered by positive thinking.
"The players are still very confident and enjoying every European match. I expect Zulte Waregem to come here with revenge on their minds and the match to follow a different path to the first."
After succumbing 5-2 against section pacesetters FC Rubin Kazan on matchday one and 3-1 at Wigan two weeks later, Maribor could have been forgiven for losing hope but Šimundža is still dreaming big. "After the win in Bruges on matchday three we have a decent chance of making it through to the knockout rounds. Three points on Thursday would go a long way towards fulfilling that ambition," he said.
"Advancing from the group stage was our sole aim at the start of the competition and that hasn't changed. A lot will depend on the other teams in our group, but if given an opportunity, we'll grasp it with both hands."
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