Grp H: Maribor vs Birmingham Preview

Birmingham manager Chris Hughton has hailed his side's European adventure as "a welcome release" from the rigours of the npower Championship.

Football News: Wade Elliott, Birmingham

Hughton's men face Maribor in Slovenia on Thursday in their first Europa League Group H away fixture, determined to enjoy their European tour following a difficult start to the season.

Last season's Carling Cup winners currently sit 19th in the table following a defeat at Southampton and home draw with Barnsley in their last two league games and Hughton believes the buzz from playing in Europe can benefit his team.

"I don't know whether the pressure is off in Europe, exactly, but there is a different feel around European games," he said ahead of Thursday's clash at the People's Garden stadium.

"I think it's a welcome release from the pressure of the Championship games which come thick and fast.

"There was some question before about whether we need the number of games that this brings us. But you only have to witness the feel, the atmosphere, the way the players have gone about these European games and the crowd. They are all good reasons why we enjoy being in this competition. It's certainly different and certainly something we're very much welcoming."

Birmingham are eager to take something from the clash following a losing start on home turf against group favourites Braga.

Hughton's men acquitted themselves well in that game but last season's losing finalists showed their quality with some ruthless finishing to take a 3-1 win back to Portugal.

"It's fair to say the Braga game was something of a reality check and there were lessons learned from it," Hughton admitted. "They were just more clinical on the night and that makes all the difference.

"We've looked at the tapes and learned things that can benefit us."

Maribor also lost their opener, 2-0 at Brugge, but have pedigree as Slovenian champions and having knocked Rangers out at the play-off stage.

"I thought Maribor were particularly impressive in beating Rangers, a team we know very well," Hughton said. "To have beaten them shows shows the quality they have.

"This is an opportunity for us. We lost our first game in the group, a very tough game at home to Braga, and every game now is an opportunity to win or get something, and that will be our approach."

Opposite number Darko Milanic, who will be without injury victim Marko Pridigar and the suspended Aleksander Rajcevic, was similarly respectful.

"We know Birmingham haven't started very well in their championship but that will change," he said.

"They have a good team but we just need to focus on ourselves.

"We've had some bad results ourselves but remain positive.

"Birmingham are tireless runners so there will be a lot of work for us."

Milanic added: "All the players are ready and motivated for the game.

"I'll decide the team based on which players are most in form for the game. Against Brugge we took some risks with players who weren't prepared and we won't do that again.

"We need to think and act quickly on the pitch and pass the ball perfectly to avoid getting into difficult one-on-one battles. That's the way for us to succeed tomorrow [Thursday], to keep the ball."

Birmingham will be without captain Stephen Carr and fellow defender Curtis Davies with knee injuries.

Davies is set to be replaced by former Spain international Pablo Ibanez at centre-back with utility man Jonathan Spector likely to stand in for Carr at right-back.



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