We’ve all seen the draw for the next round of the Europa League Qualifying Round 42. If Rangers can overcome the sizeable hurdle that is Croatian outfit Osijek, Rangers will more than likely face Maribor in the next round. Maribor have the Georgians Chikhura Sachkhere first but they should be too strong for them given their Champions League experience and because UEFA won’t let anyone progress with such a daft name.
Maribor are well known to us in Scotland, maybe not as individual players but certainly as a team. They have beaten Rangers, Celtic, Aberdeen and Hibs all in the last seven years. This in itself gives an indication that they have, historically, been well organised, difficult to beat and technically better than anything Scottish football has been able to throw at them.
When Rangers played Maribor, it was in the fateful 2011/12 season fresh off being dumped out of the Champions League by Malmo. We also had a considerably stronger squad than we have now too. Not only had we just won the league in Sir Walter’s last season but the squad was littered with experienced internationals like McGregor, Goian, Bocanegra, Papac, Davis, Jelavic, Naismith, Lafferty and Aluko.
Rangers had suffered a 2-1 defeat away from home in the first leg, which was considered a poor result but that we should have enough at home to overcome the deficit. Wrongo. A 1-1 draw at Ibrox saw the Slovenians qualify 3-2 on aggregate and Rangers out of two European competitions before most fans came back off their holidays and the kids were back at school!
Scotland, surprisingly, has actually done pretty well against the Slovenian national team having never lost a game in five, winning three and drawing two. A decent record against a team many would consider a lot stronger plus they’ve qualified for two World Cups and a European Championships this millennium, three more tournaments than Scotland for a start!
Maribor usually have 3-4 players in the Slovenia squad with probably the hottest prospect being Luka Zahovic. He already has over fifty goals for the club at just 22 and with 20 in 26 league appearances he obviously has talent. In 2014, he was nominated for the FIFA Golden Boy award such was the quality of his first season in senior football. Regardless of how they get on against the “big” teams, Maribor regularly make it to the group stages of European competition which is more than most Scottish teams do.
Please don’t take this as a “counting our chickens before they’ve hatched” thing, I’m merely looking at the draw for the next round and reminding us of where we currently are. We can’t expect to beat some of these teams when we didn’t beat them with multi-million pound squads full of experienced and decent quality internationals.
Maribor are a good side but as, perhaps, the defeat in 2011 marked the start of the banter years, maybe victory in Europa League qualification would mark a fitting end to this era? We need to negotiate Osijek first though and that will be no mean feat given the high Croatian football is on at that moment. However, Osijek now have their Player of the Year and top goal scorer out injured for both legs so BRING ON MARIBOR!