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Maribor make great leap forward under Milanič

NK Maribor are pointless in Group H, but leading the first Slovenian side in the group stage is a "challenge that you can only wish for" according to coach Darko Milanič.

Darko Milanič hopes Maribor are ready to take the next step up in Group H
Darko Milanič hopes Maribor are ready to take the next step up in Group H ©Miha Vidrih/SiOL Sportal

Darko Milanič broke new ground as a player by captaining Slovenia as they made their debut in a major international tournament at UEFA EURO 2000. The one-time FK Partizan and SK Sturm Graz defender may have overcome an even bigger challenge by leading NK Maribor into this season's UEFA Europa League, 12 years on from their unlikely UEFA Champions League group stage campaign. The Slovenian champions have lost both of their opening Group H fixtures, but the 43-year-old coach believes they may finally have found their feet as they prepare to take on SC Braga.

UEFA.com: You have yet to pick up a point in Group H; is the competition too tough for Maribor?

Darko Milanič: We are working very hard to be competitive on every front. We are playing well at home – top of the league and through to the next round of the cup – but in Europe we are up against teams that are at least one level above all our regular opponents at home. In previous years our European campaign was over by the end of August and it is obvious that we are still trying to find ourselves, to find the right way, in Europe. We are not used to playing the whole autumn at such a high level, but we have learned something – that Maribor can pick up points in this competition if we are prepared to the best of our abilities. I believe we will be able to show that to the European public this season.

UEFA.com: What does playing in the UEFA Europa League mean for your team?

Milanič: It is without doubt the realisation of a major goal that we set ourselves a few years ago. We came close a few times but never got into the group phase. At the same time this is a big challenge for us, since this is a competition that demands you raise your game. We have taken a step up, which not easy for a Slovenian side. We are up against quality opponents – that is not an everyday experience for us.

UEFA.com: Maribor were in the UEFA Champions League in 1999. How does reaching the UEFA Europa League compare with that achievement?

Milanič: That was undoubtedly Maribor's biggest success, but several basic conditions have changed since then, so qualifying for the UEFA Europa League deserves to be seen as a similar honour. Considering the state of Slovenian football in recent years, playing in this competition is really a top achievement.

UEFA.com: Are the extra games proving to be a strain on the team?

Milanič: Since we planned for this, European competition should not demand any additional effort. The whole of Europe is watching us. More people know about us, more experts see what Slovenian football is like. It is the sort of challenge you can only wish for as a coach.