NK Maribor claimed their eighth Slovenian title at the weekend but their triumph was almost overshadowed by the news that old rivals NK Olimpija Ljubljana have completed their remarkable journey back to the top flight.
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NK Maribor claimed their eighth Slovenian title at the weekend but their triumph was almost overshadowed by the news that NK Olimpija Ljubljana had completed their remarkable journey back to the top flight.
A 1-0 win against second-placed NK Celje on Saturday gave Maribor a nine-point lead at the top with three games left, with the head-to-head rule making their advantage unassailable. It was the final chapter in a single-minded bid for the title masterminded by sporting director Zlatko Zahovič and coach Darko Milanič. "It was a great pleasure and joy to coach this team," said Milanić, who captained Slovenia at UEFA EURO 2000™. "Now that we have won the championship the emotions are special. It wasn't easy, but with the energy from our supporters we made it through our bad times. We deserved this title because we played at a high level from the start."
Maribor were giants in the years following independence, winning seven successive titles between 1997 and 2003, with their return to winning ways coming in the first season following the opening of their refurbished Ljudski vrt Stadium in May 2008. However, the side from Slovenia's second city have vied for media attention with Olimpija. The most successful Slovenian side in the days of the former Yugoslavia, four-time post-independence champions Olimpija were dissolved in 2005 with severe financial problems with a new club founded to take on their name entering into the fifth division of the league structure, initially as NK Bežigrad, in the same year.
Featuring former Slovenia and Olimpija stars like Miran Pavlin, Aleš Ceh, Amir Karič, Mladen Rudonja, Sebastijan Cimerotič, they roared up the leagues in record time and will renew their rivalry with Maribor next season. Pavlin said: "Maribor v Olimpija: that is the essence of Slovenian club football. I am looking forward to this derby. We made it. It is a story for the Guinness Book of Records. Now we have to face new challenges. The top division demands a better team and better organisation. Olimpija's aim isn't just to play in the top league but to be an important part of it. We want to fight for the top places."