15 September 2014 16:51
Maribor make their first outing in the UEFA Champions League group stage for 15 years at home to Sporting Lisbon on Wednesday.
While it may seem premature to label a fixture as ‘must-win’ at this early stage in the competition, it would be difficult to argue against that being the case for the Slovenian champions if they have designs on making the knockout stages.
As the team with the lowest UEFA coefficient in Group G, a home tie against the third-ranked outfit represents perhaps Maribor’s best chance of picking up valuable points in a pool that also contains Chelsea and Schalke.
But Portugal-born striker Luka Zahovic, who has scored five goals in as many league matches this season, claims that he feels part of Maribor’s golden generation.
“Last season, I said that this is the best generation ever to play for Maribor,” he told the club’s official website. “I’m proud that I can be part of this team and the great thing is that we can play in the Champions League.
“We earned it. We look forward to all of the action that follows.”
Maribor qualified for this stage with a 2-1 aggregate victory over Celtic and have picked up five wins from their opening seven league fixtures.
Marco Silva’s Sporting, meanwhile, have endured an underwhelming start to the Primeira Liga campaign.
A 1-0 home victory over Arouca remains their only win of the season so far, having been held to 1-1 draws in their other three fixtures to date.
And Nani – on loan from Manchester United – knows performances must improve quickly.
“Obviously people were expecting big things,” he told Sporting’s website. “We wanted to start the season in the best possible way and we still have a lot of games to play.
“We will fight as hard as we can to get better results.”
Sporting are in the group stage for the first time since the 2008-09 campaign when they reached the last 16 – losing 12-1 on aggregate to Bayern Munich.
Encouragingly for Maribor, their Portuguese opponents have not won any of their last 10 away fixtures in European competition, losing seven and drawing three.
Defenders Ramy Rabia (stomach) and Cedric (back) are expected to be the only injury doubts for Sporting, while Maribor are thought to have a fully fit squad to choose from.