What do Slovakia have up their sleeve for Euro 2016 and England encounter?
Holly Thackeray | April 17, 2016
Slovakia have so far escaped the same attention that has been heaped on neighbours and former federal state partners the Czech Republic, but this lack of hype may just suit coach Jan Kozak’s men as they approach their daunting Euro 2016 Group B challenges against England, Wales and Russia.
Following the so-called ‘Velvet Divorce’ in 1993, as a separate footballing entity from the defunct Czechoslovakia, the Slovakian sporting side has been less successful than their Czech counterparts, having qualified for just one World Cup (2010) and one European Championship (the upcoming France finals). While, at least at the Euros, their regional rivals in red have excelled as runners-up in 1996 and semi-finalists in 2004.
Slovakia, nicknamed Repre, certainly have some ground to make up then, and it is not out of the realms that the team of white and blue could make a better crack at their pool than the Czech Republic, who face holders Spain plus tough and tricky dark horses Turkey (yet again after qualifying) and Croatia.
Of course, relative unknowns Repre will be focusing on their own game, having impressively finished ahead of Ukraine in second spot of Euro qualifying Group C, just five points behind current champions La Roja, who they stunned 2-1 on home soil.
Slovakia seeking to overturn wobbly records
Having done the hard part then, by reaching the France finals, Slovakia will take to the big summer stage as serious underdogs to secure safe pool passage (at just evens with Coral to qualify from Group B), with their three distinguished competitors all odds-on prices.
The unlikely event of a pool victory is 7/1 for the Slovakians, but they will hope to use this dark horse status to surprise, as they previously did versus the Spanish.
Still, although the pinching of points looks reasonable against an ageing Russia, their record against their Euro rivals goes someway to explaining why they look least favourable to emerge unscathed. In three fixtures against the in-form Three Lions (5/6 group favourites), Slovakia are yet to secure a win, just three lowly losses.
While, with Wales they have won and lost one apiece, though they have tended to be high scoring affairs, with five goals to the victor in each encounter. Finally, the Russians have run out as winners against Repre on three occasions to two and also notched three draws.
Scattering of familiar faces
Against opponents with the speed of Gareth Bale or Jamie Vardy, the Slovakian side, who boasted but one defender under age 29 in their most recent roster selection, look ripe to be exploited on the break and a decent bet to be Group B’s whipping boys.
But still, time after time, it has been shown a folly to write outsiders off who carry little weight of expectation or pressure – especially when they are a tight-knit and well-gelled team that has already shocked Spain.
Kozak’s contingent have been playing together for a long time, and there are a scattering of familiar faces that may not quite play at the level of the Premier League, but still have the nous to give any complacent country a run for their money.
English fans may recognise stopper Jan Mucha from his stint as a scarcely used back-up in Everton blue between 2010 and 2013, but it is keeper Matus Kozacik of Viktoria Plzen viewers are more likely to spy between the posts.
Slovakia, who did manage to sink Switzerland and Iceland plus hold the Republic of Ireland in recent friendly fixtures, will be hoping it is experience rather than ageing legs their rearguard are remembered for in France.
Of course skipper and Liverpool centre half Martin Skrtel will steer the backline alongside regular right back Peter Pekarik, who is currently starring in Hertha Berlin’s surprisingly successful Bundesliga season and that has reportedly piqued Premier League interest.
The passion and tenacity of this pair, used to the pace of their respective leagues, alongside the likes of Cologne left back Dusan Svento, Jan Durica (Lokomotiv Moscow), Tomas Hubocan (Dynamo Moscow) and Roma loanee Norbert Gyomber, should make Slovakia a sturdy and tough nut to crack if they can keep up to speed.
Should Slovakia face the threat of being over-run however, the defensive midfield shield positions have seen a comparatively youthful coupling of late, with PAOK’s Erik Sabo (24) and, for any eagle-eyed English fans, former Bolton Wanders development squad star Jan Gregus (25) deep anchoring options.
More to midfield than just Hamsik heroics
Napoli and Serie A superstar Marek Hamsik of course makes highest billing in this squad, and the Mohican-sporting midfield leader has lived up to his tag so far, after topping the qualifying Group C scorer charts with five strikes to help secure his nation’s spot.
It goes without saying that most of the attention will be based around the vice-captain’s box-to-box charges and nose for a spectacular goal, but Hamsik, who is currently second for most caps and third for all-time top scorer, is not the only gem in Slovakia’s crown.
While the rest of his charges may not boast as illustrious and consistent club careers, they have shown they are more than capable of stepping up for their country, and it is in this midfield that Slovakia may just win a few matches.
Another who currently plies his trade quietly in Italy’s top-flight is Juraj Kucka of AC Milan, and the former Genoa man is a fairly new recruit but has made 24 Serie A outings in the Rossoneri’s middling campaign. Still, with big-club experience the competent performer can prove invaluable, having previously hit the target against Spain.
Wing wizardry key
Recent goal heroes include winger Robert Mak, and it is the wings which pose real threat to Slovakia’s opponents, as the former Manchester City FA Youth Cup winner, now with Greek club PAOK after time with Nuremburg, has hit the net against all of Iceland, Luxembourg and Switzerland recently.
Man City’s influence is further felt throughout this squad as Vladimir Weiss, a fellow 2008 FA Youth Cup victor and wideman, is also pressing for XI inclusion. A haul of 44 strikes in 191 club games is nothing to be sniffed at in this Slovakia squad, and wily Weiss could be a real well-traveled wild card after taking in loan trips to Bolton, Rangers and Espanyol.
Not short of attacking talent, Stanislav Sestak may be no Slovakian spring chicken at 33, but the Hungary-based veteran also has an eye for goal, as he sits four strikes behind lauded hero Hamsik, but with substantially less caps. At the opposite end of the age spectrum, Legia Warsaw 21-year-old Ondrej Duda (encouragingly dubbed Dudinho and Ondrej Di Maria) is tipped to be an exciting impact sub after he hit a winner over rivals the Czechs and continues to be slowly blooded.
Readers may also recognise flank magician Miroslav Stoch when Slovakia line up against England as, although the nimble winger made just four senior appearances for Chelsea, he has a fair amount of prestigious career history, having lifted the FIFA Puskas Award for the best goal in 2012, as well as taking part in the Blues’ 2009 FA Cup-winning campaign.
Yet to fulfill his early promise, skillful Stoch’s career highlight remains a Eredivisie title win while on loan at Twente, in which he struck 10 times.
Should Slovakia target England’s sometimes vulnerable full back positions, Stoch will be one to watch out for, after he contributed the winning goal in a Euro 2012 qualifying victory against Russia, and also more recently in Euro 2016 qualification Spain.
Recalled frontman Robert Vittek, a veteran at 34 and Slovakia’s all-time top marksman, also has scoring history against the Russians, indicating Kozak could have several surprises up his sleeve for a Group B that may not be as cut and dried as it seems.