Tottenham need to avoid defeat in Slovenia on Thursday if they want to feel like they have a good chance of qualifying for the knockout stages of the Europa League.
Andre Villas-Boas cares about the Europa League, and will play first team players against NK Maribor on Thursday. Maribor beat Panathinaikos, a team that we drew during the last round of games, so this does not mean that we will beat them comfortably. Spurs are playing a real game against a tough opponent on Thursday, and three points are not a given.
A lot of you probably do not care. Honestly, I'm not big on Europa League. If it was up to me, we'd make the league the top priority, take the FA Cup very seriously, and not really take the Europa League seriously unless our kids happen to get us into the Round of 16. I wouldn't even bust out the first-teamers for the Round of 32. That's not because I think the Europa League is a joke competition that isn't worthy of being taken seriously -- I'm going to watch Dnipro-Napoli and Rosenborg-Metalist today -- but because I just thing we need to take the league and FA cup more seriously.
However, our manager wants to win the competition and prioritizes it. He's going to play 11 experienced professionals, about half of which are first choice for Tottenham Hotspur. This tells me that I, along with other Spurs fans, should probably care about this match by default. It's not my business to tell anyone what to do or how to support their club, but when the manager takes a competition seriously and risks the club's best players, fans should probably care.
If you're looking for an in-depth preview of the match, I am sorry to say that I lack the expertise to give it to you. Yes, even people who watch football for a living don't have incredible working knowledge of NK Maribor. I'll give it a shot anyway.
What I can tell you is that their formation varies between 4-4-2 and 4-5-1 variatons, depending on the opponent, with the major difference being how deep their captain and second striker/attacking midfielder Marcos Tavares operates. Their lineup in their Champions League playoff round loss to Dinamo Zagreb is listed as a 4-4-1-1. In the last two games, it's listed as 4-2-3-1. For most league matches, it's listed as a 4-4-2. Maribor, who leads the league in Slovenia by a wide margin, is coming off a win over second-placed Olimpija, where Tavares scored the winner.
I can tell you less about Tottenham Hotspur, because they have a big squad and because, even though they take this competition more seriously than they did under Harry Redknapp, they take it less seriously than Maribor. They won the league in Slovenia last year and they're going to do it again comfortably. This is their top priority. We know who they're going to play.
The good news for Spurs is that Maribor is a bit thin in defense. Nejc Potokar is injured, while Jovan Vidovic is suspended. I wish I had the working knowledge to tell you who their fourth choice central defender is. Midfielder Rajko Rep is also injured.
Tottenham Hotspur projected starting XI (4-2-3-1): Hugo Lloris; Jan Vertonghen, Steven Caulker, Michael Dawson, Adam Smith; Jake Livermore, Tom Huddlestone; Gylfi Sigurdsson, Clint Dempsey, Aaron Lennon; Jermain Defoe
I guess it's just wishful thinking that Adam Smith will get a shot in one of these games? He's earned it. We could also see Kyle Naughton, who made the bench against Chelsea and traveled with the team. I'm expecting Michael Dawson to get another Europa League game, and with both Huddlestone and Livermore in need of some game time, we could stand to give Sandro a rest.
Game date/time: Thursday, 1 p.m. ET, 6 p.m. UK
Venue: Ljudski vrt, Maribor, Slovenia
TV: ITV 4 (U.K.), FOX Soccer (U.S.), Sportsnet regional networks (Canada)