NK Maribor v Tottenham Hotspur, 6pm
25 October ~ If there is a team playing in the Slovenian Prva Liga that might be said to have a European pedigree then it's NK Maribor. Spurs' opponents in the Europa League tonight became the first – and so far only – team from the country to compete in the Champions League group stage, in 1999. Last year they completed their European set when they beat Rangers to become the first Slovenes to play in the group stage of the Europa League.
In the past couple of years the team from Slovenia's industrial second city have acquired a domestic dominance that seems unassailable. Every season at least one club gets relegated from the top level and quickly ceases to exist. This churn of bankruptcy and uncertainty has allowed Maribor to stay afloat while others have been sucked into the mire. More than weathering the storm, Maribor appear to be pushing on under the uncompromising stewardship of coach Darko Milanic.
The ease with which the team has mastered their domestic competition has meant that they're often underprepared for foreign opposition. However, they might just be getting their act together. Last year's first foray into the group stage of the Europa League left the supporters feeling bruised yet optimistic after putting in some good performances that yielded a single point. Scant reward that may have been but Spurs should note that Maribor didn't fail to score at home last year, in a group that featured Braga, Brugge and Birmingham.
This year they've already outdone their previous group-stage performance by putting three past Panathinaikos without reply in their first home game before narrowly losing 1-0 away to Lazio. Even if they fail to pick up another point in this year's competition, the victory over Panathinaikos will spell success to a crowd used to seeing the gulf between the continent's haves and have-nots expressed well before the group stages.
While Spurs spent the summer shedding their Croat contingent, much of Maribor's potency comes through their combative Croatian-born midfielder, Dejan Mezga. Maribor's No 8 is the club's second highest scorer in UEFA competition. The top marksman is club captain Marcos Tavares, a formerly nomadic Brazilian who has established himself as one of the stars of Slovene football. Tavares has netted 13 times against continental opposition and while not astoundingly prolific even in the Prva Liga, he represents one of the main threats to the Spurs goal.
The Premier League is popular with Slovene football fans and the presence of Birmingham in last year's group was not the glamour tie some had hoped for. The Ljudski vrt stadium can get boisterous on a big night and, while a superior Spurs team will expect to prevail, Maribor will be playing for more than just pride. Jaimie Henderson