Maccabi Haifa - Vladimir Stojakovic - 21072011
Maccabi Haifa Photo by Vladimir Stojakovic
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Darko Milanic, coach of the Slovenian soccer club Maribor, is playing mind games with Maccabi Haifa, his rival tomorrow and next week in the third qualifying round of the Champions League.

On one hand, Milanic has called Haifa "the favorite" and said his team has nothing to lose. On the other, he said he was in Banja Luka to watch Maccabi play Borac in the second qualifying round, and saw its problems attacking from static positions.

"In order to progress to the next stage, we have to give two fantastic games against Haifa," Milanic said on the eve of his departure for Israel, ahead of Thursday's first leg.

He also said it was dangerous for his team to have been called the favorite before the second qualifying round. However, he did not specify where the danger was in the team's two victories of 3-1 and 2-0 against Dudelange, which set up the current meeting with Bnei Yehuda.

Tonight, the Israeli champion takes on Maribor, which it met in the group stage of the Champions League in 2000. Darko Malshin, a sports journalist in Slovenia, quoted Milanic as telling his players they were good enough to earn at least one away goal in Haifa.

What does scare the Slovenians, players and journalists alike is the oppressive Mediterranean heat.

"Maribor will have to overcome both the home team, the energy from the stands and the humidity," said Yore Bahoric, another local journalist. Bahoric added that he is not impressed by the fitness of Maribor's players.

Coach Milanic and Zlatko Zahovic, the team's director of soccer, belong to the previous generation of Slovenians who climbed to the top of Euro 2000 and the 2002 World Cup. The current crop may prove more talented, with players like Samir Handanovic of Udinese, Josip Pilichevich of Palermo and scorer Tim Mateush of Groningen.

Milanic and Zahovic have the second-tier players to count on. Macedonian midfielder Agim Ibraimi is a "player who can be very dangerous to his rival or destructive to his own team," said Zahovic. The director calls Marcos, the team's captain, "the weak link on offense."

"He is the least Brazilian player I have met," he said. Maribor officials are particularly concerned about the absence of Mitja Viler, the injured left defender. According to Bahoric, Maribor was concerned about its weakness at the goalkeeper position until it signed a three-year contract with 33-year-old Jasmin Handanovic, who previously had strong seasons with Mantova and Empoli. At 1.96-meters, Jasmin Handanovic specializes in one-one-one play. His presence in the goal should provide confidence to Maribor's defense.

"Milanic is interested in what he defines as an active result - a draw or close game involving away goals, which would automatically fill the team's stadium for the second leg next week and give them an advantage," Bahoric said.