Blog post: Prva Liga Returns – No one tells Celje and Olimpija…

The new season has kicked off with Maribor straight out of the blocks – the viola find themselves with maximum points from two games and are predictably setting the early pace. Most likely to challenge are, on paper at least, Olimpija Ljubljana, but the club have struggled to pick up a single point from the opening duo of games. Rudar scalped the Green Dragons in round one before Olimpija ground out a one-all draw beside the seaside at Koper on Saturday.

New boys Zavrč provided Maribor with an opening day victory before pulling off an impressive win against Celje, another of the teams expected to do well this year, even after the damp squib of their European misadventure. Celje and Domžale both bowed out of the Europa League at the first opportunity, suffering aggregate losses to Tromsø (2:3) and Astra Giurgiu (0:3) respectively. In the second round of that competition, Olimpija recorded an impressive 3:1 home win over Žilina – they travel to Slovakia for the second leg tomorrow. In the Champions’ League Maribor slipped past the Maltese champions Birkirkara this evening, after a flat 0:0 draw away in Malta. They will face 2011-12 Champions League quarter finalists APOEL Nicosia in the next round.

The other promoted side are Krka, giving Novo Mesto representation in the top league for the first time since the early nineties. They’ve fared less well than Zavrč so far, but their record matches Olimpija’s, so that’s some kind of weak consolation.

First Round:

Luka Koper 2:1 Krka

Maribor 2:1 Zavrč

Triglav 0:1 Gorica

Olimpija 1:2 Rudar

(n.b: Celje v. Domžale is rescheduled for 31st July)

Second Round:

Luka Koper 1:1 Olimpija

Rudar 0:3 Maribor

Domžale 2:2 Triglav

Krka  1:1 Gorica

Zavrč 2 : 1 Celje

From the interminable winter break to the Eternal Derby

The first round of matches after the winter break (technically round 22), was played over the first weekend of March, with the exception of Mura’s home game against Olimpija (a victim of winter). With that last game played on Tuesday, the chips from round 22 fell as follows:

Gorica 0:0 Celje

Maribor 4:1 Triglav

Rudar 3:0 Aluminij

Domžale 1:1 Luka Koper

Mura 0:4 Olimpija

Last weekend saw the next round, still with plenty of snow still piled up around the grounds. There were banks of the stuff around Celje’s Arena Petrol, a ground that is potentially exposed at the best of times – ideal for spring and summer evenings, but the architecture doesn’t lend itself to a finding a cosy spot from which to view some early spring nogomet.

On the pitch the Grofje welcomed a Mura side further beleaguered by a winter fire sale that cost them many of their experienced players. Over the winter break boardroom changes took place in Murska Sobota, with Nataša Horvat taking up the position of chair. Hopefully this will produce some much needed stability, but, despite some encouraging resistance, they proved no challenge for the home side. Benjamin Verbič scored on the 18th and 42nd minutes, before providing for Andraž Žurej with just over ten minutes left. Mura hadn’t looked completely out of it for large chunks of the game, but the collapse was complete when Sebastjan Gobec scored in added time. It was to be the first of two matches in which Mura would ship four goals without scoring, prior to the same result in the rescheduled match against Olimpija.

The man who might once have scored for Mura, Nusmir Fajič, enjoyed an interesting game for champions Maribor, his new home on the over the other side of the Mura river. The oft-over-hyped Eternal Derby took place at Olimpija’s Stožice stadium and Maribor went into the break with a one nil lead courtesy of the aforementioned new boy, Fajič.  Nikola Nikezić restored parity just before the hour in an occasionally bad-tempered game which saw seven yellow cards and a sending off. The dismissal come on the seventieth minute for Maribor keeper Jasmin Handanovič after his over-reaction to a clumsy tangle with the home side’s Damjan Trifkovič.

Not content with a goal to his credit, Nusmir Fajič slipped on the gloves and took a shift between the posts. While it might have been expected that twenty minutes with ten men should give Olimpija all the encouragement they needed, it seemed in many ways to have the opposite effect. For much of the match both teams had enjoyed some nice periods of composure and possession, but with Fajič blagging it in front of a partisan home crowd, Olimpija suddenly gave up all idea of working the ball into the box and instead decided to pump long shots in the vague direction of the Maribor goal.  The strategy was both naive and unnecessary and it might well have cost the team from the capital a valuable two points.  If they’re to have any hope of closing the gulf in quality with Maribor and to become serious challengers for the Prva Liga title, they’ll need to show an order of magnitude more nous than they did in this match.

Round 23 looked like this:

Luka Koper 2:2 Rudar

Celje 4:0 Mura

Aluminij 1:3 Gorica

Olimpija 1:1 Maribor

Triglav P:P Domžale

This weekend’s matches:

(Round 24)

Saturday 16/03:

Gorica v. Luka Koper (15:00 CET)

Olimpija v. Celje (17:30)

Maribor v. Domžale (20:00)

Sunday 17/03:

Rudar v. Triglav (15:00)

Mura 05 v. Aluminij (15:00)

Slovenia play Iceland during the international break, as part of their already surely busted campaign to make it to Brasil ‘14. Three points from four games in a group that should have guaranteed the national team fighting for the top two spots is not the kind of form that leads to a World Cup finals berth.  With a home tie against Iceland the only competitive tie until the return fixture in June, newly returned Srečko Katanec will be hoping to grab another three points to restore some confidence in a team undergoing something of a transition.

Club Profile: NK Aluminij

The Prva Liga’s newest team are also a rare case in the Slovene league system – an outfit that began at independence towards the bottom of the pile before working their way up through the leagues, passing many other teams who were making the opposite journey at dizzying speed.

The team from Kidričevo was formed in 1946 to provide a sporting outlet for the employees of the local aluminium factory. The Talum factory, as it operates today is still prominent part of the local economy in this part of North-eastern Slovenia. Having made it up to the Prva Liga, the team could have expected a derby match match with Drava from nearby Ptuj, had the latter not suffered the familiar fate of domestic football when they folded in 2011 (a sobering reminder of what can happen – Drava made a similar journey up through the leagues to Aluminij, even managing to finish fourth in the Prva Liga in the 2006-07 season).

Not exactly unknowns, the Kidričevo team were the champions of the Slovene edition of the Federal Yugoslav third league during the 1965-66 season before enjoying three seasons at the pan-Yugoslavian second league level, where they played in the Western division. During their first season at this higher level (a season in which the league was won by the only other Slovene participant, Maribor) they finished a respectable 11th with 32 points, a mere four points off 5th place – although these were days of two points for a win. In the 1967-68 season, Aluminij were the Slovene republic’s sole representatives at this level but finished a dispiriting bottom place with a mere 14 points, half the amount of second-bottom Trešnjevka. League restructuring gave them a stay of execution; however, the next season was even worse, with the team managed to scrape together eight points, a decent fist of things given their -99 goal difference.

Aluminij’s home ground is probably one of the most modest in any European top division, with facilities bettered by many villages in the U.K. No doubt there will be investment if the team manage to establish themselves in the top division, whether that will prove to be prudent in the long run will remain to be seen.

Established: 1946
Home Ground: Športni park, Kidričevo
Home colours: Red with white trim (currently red and white hoops with red sleeves, red shorts)
Chairman: Zvonko Jevšovar
Coach: Bojan Flis
Website: http://www.nkaluminij.net/naslovnica/

Stojanović Steps Down from the Slovenia Job

(January 2013 Update: Srečko Katanec accepted the role of managing the Slovenia national team on 31st December 2012).

On Sunday Slaviša Stojanović finally left his post as the national team manager. A victim of the country’s recent success and increased expectations, the coach’s poor return of only two wins (a friendly against Romania and a competitive tie with Cyprus) has seen his position become harder and harder to justify.

Going into the draw for the World Cup qualifiers, the performances of the past few years meant that Slovenia were placed in the second highest pot. But the team’s performance in a relatively tricky but manageable qualification group for Brazil 2014 has seen them languishing second bottom of group E, with Albania and Iceland above, and Cyprus below only on goal difference. This isn’t the kind of blustering, confident show that the football-watching public have become accustomed to.

While Stojanović had to contend with rebuilding a squad where a number of the most experienced players had decided to turn their back on the national team and an increasing number of the younger players are scattered around the continent, this is arguably a challenge that any manager of Slovenia will have to contend with. In the end the results just weren’t good enough.

With hopes of making it to a second consecutive World Cup all but extinguished, the next holder of the position will be in the enviable position of entering qualification for a greatly enlarged European Championships, in the French edition of 2016. UEFA’s expansion was expected to benefit teams like Slovenia most, so it’s a pretty big carrot for anyone perusing the situations vacant pages.

Local media are suggesting that Srečko Katanec might be able to return to sprinkle a little of his lucky dust on the beleaguered team but in the ten years since his last glorious tenure, the man who’s greatest crime appears to have been not being Zlatko Zahovič has had frankly torrid spells at the helm of Olympiacos, Macedonia and the UAE.

It’s tempting to say that it could be time for Zahovič to put his money where his mouth is, but that’s unlikely to be a good solution for either him or the national team. Darko Milanič is currently the coach with the chops in the domestic game, but it’s hard to see why he’d leave Maribor during their appropriately purple patch.

Slaviša Stojanović seems a decent club manager, and no doubt he’ll find a rewarding post in the near future, but severing ties with Stojanović’s predecessor, Matjaž Kek, is starting to look like a distinct mis-step for the Slovene F.A.

Those weary of Maribor’s domination should look away now…

We nearly got to finish the full first 21 rounds of the Slovene domestic league, but the attempt to sneak in Rudar v. Maribor’s delayed 17th round tie after the official start of the winter break was aptly enough scuppered by snowfall. They’ll now have to wait until the new year to catch up with the rest, but at least Maribor no longer have to focus on the Europa League having faded to a disappointing fourth and last place in their group; though after a campaign for which they deserve much credit, thrashing Panathinaikos and holding Tottenham to a draw. Unfortunately, they lost every other match and will feel it was a missed opportunity to finish above the Greeks.

On the domestic front they’re again out of sight going into the winter break. Even with that game against Rudar Velenje in hand they’re a surely unassailable nine points ahead of second-placed Olimpija, and we’re only half way through the season. With the added prestige and cash that two back-to-back trips to the Europa League group stages have given the team at the top, it’s really hard to see how anyone else is going to crack their domination. Back in 2007-08 they finished in fourth without any opportunity for European football, but since then, Koper’s impressive first title in 09-10 notwithstanding, they’ve ballooned into a beast that bullies the flat-track of the Slovene domestic game. As impressive as it is to see them growing into a team that justifiably has a place in the Europa League, it’s hard to see the healthiest solution for the rest of the local teams. It’s becoming the perennial problem of the Prva Liga.

This is how the league stands as we head into the bleak midwinter…

Pos Team Played Points
1. Maribor 20 48
2. Olimpija Ljubljana 21 39
3. Domžale 21 35
4. Luka Koper 21 33
5. Celje 21 29
6. Triglav Kranj 21 24
7. Gorica 21 23
8. Rudar Velenje 20 21
9. Aluminij 21 21
10. Mura 05 21 17

We’ll return to the league in the New Year, it could be an interesting January transfer window for any of the chairmen who can find a few euros down the back of the couch… Doctors recommend against holding your breath.

Mura get it together and Maribor bow out of Europe

I managed to catch the first half of Mura’s home tie against Rudar Velenje in the last round of games, I haven’t seen either team play this season and it was heartening to see a thus far lack lustre Mura side turn it on. Running out 4:0 victors, the side from Murska Sobota are managing to keep in touch at the bottom. It’s hard not to have a soft spot for the Mura side, who managed to achieve so much last season before having the guts pulled out of the team just as they were embarking on their European campaign – especially in light of the collapse of fellow Prekmurians Nafta Lendava in the summer.

Olimpija’s wobbly form continued as they slipped to a 1:2 home defeat to Domžale in what might be loosely described as a Ljubljana(ish) derby, though no one recognises it as such. Maribor applied further pressure on the league by destroying Gorica 1:6 over on the border with Italy. This is one of the stories of the round – Gorica are sleep-walking into a very dangerous position, finding themselves the only team above an increasingly assertive Mura and the bottom of the table.

Maribor’s chances of glory in Europe (in a tough group for them, let’s be honest) took a tumble when they failed to return the serving of their home victory against Panathinaikos in the Europa League. A bland 1:0 win for the Greek side saw the Viola’s European chances extinguished for this year. The Prva Liga is almost certainly already theirs again, so a third year in at least the Europa League next season would be a sign that their progress is set.

The twentieth round kicks off tomorrow, here are the fixtures (all times CET):

Saturday 24th November:

Gorica v. Mura (14:00)

Domžale v. Celje (16:00)

Sunday 25th November:

Triglav v. Aluminij (13:00)

Maribor v. Luka Koper (16:00)

Rudar Velejne v. Olimpija (16:00)

Exile ended & Maribor make their mark on the European Stage

The world always intervenes in these things, apologies for the absence. On with the show…

It’s been a busy season already in the Prva Liga as we head towards the winter break. The matches run for another month and then the country gives the game a rest to let the winter do its worst. The East has been subject to a significant amount of flash-flooding in the past week, so fingers crossed the winter doesn’t go too ‘ape’.

This season the football association has retaken control of the top division from the Prva Liga, hopefully bringing to an end some of the, shall we say, dysfunctional practices that seemed to be going on. If nothing else, the NZS’s greater continental reach might allow it to improve the general state of a league that lurches between potential disasters.

The upshot of this season’s changes mean that it’s actually much easier for British (and other international) users to watch matches, with one a week usually being available directly on http://www.prvaliga.si and almost all matches being available to stream on at least http://www.bet365.com

The biggest talking point has undoubtedly been the kicking on of Maribor in Europe, already having beaten Panathinaikos in an impressive 3:0 win and holding Spurs to a one all draw, they face the North London club again tonight, but the tie at White Hart Lane is likely to be even more challenging. I wrote a piece for When Saturday Comes in the run up to the game at the Ljuski vrt, which can be found here: http://www.wsc.co.uk/wsc-daily/1153-october-2012/9115-spurs-should-be-wary-of-the-slovenian-champions

So, patchy coverage on Goli Gol aside, the state of the Prva Liga currently stands thus:

Pos Team Played Points
1. Maribor 15 35
2. Olimpija Ljubljana 17 32
3. Luka Koper 17 28
4. Celje 17 25
5. Domžale 16 25
6. Gorica 17 19
7. Aluminij 16 19
8. Triglav Kranj 16 18
9. Rudar Velenje 15 16
10. Mura 05 16 11

So, it looks like Maribor’s too lose yet again. They suffered wobbles in the past couple of seasons, but the team now look so far ahead of the competition that their European adventures might even start to really mature the team into something impressive. The other teams in the top half of the table are pretty unsurprising, but it’s a shame to see Mura being cut adrift after such an impressive effort last time round.