Archive for February, 2012

Feb 28 2012

Banik v Jablonec

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‘If you told a Czech you were going to Ostrava, he would think you’re mad.’ Thus ran the opening line of the Ostrava entry in the first Rough Guide to the Czech Republic. So what must you be if you go to Ostrava in February to watch the struggling local football team in action? Let’s not answer that one…

I’ve been to Ostrava a few times and never thought it was that bad. True, it wouldn’t win any beauty contests, but if you accept it for what it is, ie an industrial city fallen on hard times, it’s got a few things going for it. Its best museums and attractions are connected with the coalmines and the Vítkovice steelworks, but it also has quite a rich cultural life for a city of its size and type, as a look at the fliers for upcoming events will show. Best of all, mainly thanks to Stodolní, a street with upwards of 100 pubs, bars and clubs, it is regarded, in the Czech Republic and beyond, as a fantastic night out.

And then there’s poor old Baník. These days, if you go to their website, visit the club-shop or buy a programe at the ground, you’ll be greeted with the message ‘let’s save Baník’. The club needs saving in three different ways. It has an estimated debt of 10 million Czech Crowns, the team has just slipped into the Gambrinus Liga’s relegation zone, and Bazaly, its home ground since 1959, is under threat of having its licence to stage games removed by the Czech football association. It is hoped that new ownership, renewed local authority support and a campaign to get fans to buy merchandise will help with the debt issue, that special offers on half-season tickets will create an intimidating atmosphere and help the team win enough home games to escape relegation, and that ambitious redevelopment plans will transform Bazaly.

How realistic any of this is, given the current financial climate, is another matter. But when you see and hear 7,000+ Bank fans getting noisily behind their team, as was the case on Saturday, you can’t help but wish the club well. And Bazaly itself, for all its inadequacies, is a classic of a ground. It’s in the Silesian part of the city, where Baník’s roots are, and that, of course, is why the club is so desperate to stay there rather than move to Vítkovice, as the local authority would prefer them to do. It is located halfway up a hill and basically follows the contours of the land. Thus, there’s a high open bank on one side, which sweeps round behind the goals and falls away at an angle before meeting the main stand, the only covered area. Despite the ground’s openness, it has good acoustics and the fans know well how to take advantage of them.

Initially at least, the team responded superbly to the backing they were given. Before visitors Jablonec had got their bearings, Ostrava were 2-0 up. With less than 10 minutes on the clock, Tomáš Vrťo hit a brilliant pass to Antonín Fantiš on the left. Fantiš jinked inside and rattled a 20-yard shot just inside the left-hand post. 10 minutes after that, Václav Svěrkoš, who had an excellent first-half, found Vrťo with another precision pass. The number 7, faced with the sort of chance players often miss through having too much time to decide what to do, calmly slipped the ball home.

Jablonec had come into the game in fifth place, with an impressive record of 40 goals in their previous 17 fixtures (19 of them scored by David Lafata) and a reputation as the Gambrinus Liga’s most attractive side. Now they had to start living up to their billing. They got a generous helping hand from Dawid Pietrzkiewicz after 27 minutes, the home keeper inexplicably failing to cover his near post as Pavel Eliáš drilled in a low cross from wide on the right. After that, the longer the game went on, the more possession Jablonec had, and the more work Benjamin Vomáčka and Jozef Adamík had to do at the heart of Baník’s defence. It was interesting to see these two in action, especially as I was familiar with them from their Slovak Corgoň Liga days. Vomáčka was a highly popular figure during his five-and-a-half years with Žilina, a period in which he won two championship medals, while Adamík made a total of 150 appearances for Dubnica and Banská Bystrica between 2005 and 2011.

But another man who has enjoyed success in Slovakia, Jablonec coach František Komňacký, had possibly the biggest influence on the second-half. For a start, he sent his side out late ; the Baník players seemed to have been warming up for several minutes before the men in green finally emerged. Then, with 35 minutes still to play, he made a double substitution, which involved putting on Lukás Třešňák as a strike partner for Lafata. The visitors’ attacks seemed to get more dangerous, and Baník’s defending more panicky, as a result. The last-minute equaliser, a flicked header from Karel Piták following a long free-kick, seemed cruel on Baník, yet it also felt like it was coming. That said, the home side had come close to wrapping the game up ; Lukáš Magera hit the bar with a header and Vrťo failed to replicate his earlier coolness after being sent clean through.

On this evidence, Baník have some good players, but their collective self-confidence seems low. I can’t help thinking that Pietrzkiewicz, who was anything but assured on Saturday, might be a factor in this and that a better goalkeeper is needed. Meanwhile, the next home game, against a České Budejovice side just three points better off (at time of writing), looks crucial. If the team’s strengths don’t prevail over its frailities in that one, relegation will start to look likely, rather than simply possible. If it happens, any plans for Bazaly will surely be shelved, or perhaps abandoned altogether. No wonder the ‘let’s save Baník’ campaign has such an urgent tone to it.
James Baxter

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Feb 20 2012

Latest News from the Slovak Football Scene

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There are two main news items to start the week. The first is Michal Hipp’s first selection as caretaker-coach of the Slovakia national team, for the away game with Turkey on Wednesday February 29th. The squad is listed below :

Goalkeepers :Ján Mucha (Everton), Dušan Perniš (Dundee United).

Defenders :Peter Pekarík (Kayserispor), Kornel Saláta (FK Rostov), Martin Škrtel  (Liverpool) Tomáš Hubočan (Zenit St Petersburg), Marek Čech (Trabzonspor), Radoslav Zabavník (FSV Mainz).

Midfielders :Michal Breznaník (Slovan Liberec), Kamil Kopúnek (Slovan Bratislava), Juraj Kucka (Genoa), Róbert Jež (Polonia Warsaw), Marek Hamšík (Napoli), Vladimír Weiss (Espanyol), Miroslav Stoch (Fenerbahce).

Forwards :Filip Hološko (Besiktas), Marek Bakoš (Viktoria Plzeň), Stanislav Šesták (Gaziantepspor)

Most striking is the inclusion of two new faces, in Breznaník and Bakoš. The Liberec midfielder’s selection can be taken as evidence of the rehabilitation his career has undergone since Slovan Bratislava effectively ‘sacked’ him following his red card in a Europa League qualifier away to Stuttgart in August 2010. He has since scored 14 goals in 38 games for Liberec, the latest coming in a 3-1 win over Hradec Králové the weekend just gone.

Bakoš, meanwhile, is an obvious choice, having impressed in European action for Plzeň this season. He too was on the scoresheet in domestic action at the weekend, hitting two goals in Viktoria’s 4-3 defeat of Teplice, and led the line superbly in last Thursday’s Europa League last 32 home leg against Schalke. As Hipp acknowledges, he is currently in better form than either Filip Hološko or Stanislav Šesták and thus must be favourite to start up front in Turkey.

It is perhaps worth pointing out that, with the exception of Hubočan, Saláta and Kopúnek, every member of this squad plays in a country whose domestic league has restarted after the winter break, or in one which doesn’t take a break at all. Match-fitness, therefore, should not be a problem for most. That even goes for Hubočan, who played in Zenit’s Champions League tie with Benfica last week. Of the omissions, those of Filip Šebo and Ján Ďurica could be put down to lack of recent competitive football. The absences of Freiburg pair Karim Guédé and Erik Jendrišek, both of whom featured in their side’s 0-0 draw with Bayern Munich on Saturday, are less easily explained. It is possible, however, that the former may still be settling in at his new club, while Jendrišek, like Hološko and Šesták, has been struggling for goals.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about the Turkey game will be the way Hipp approaches it. Will he adopt the sort of tactics we would have expected from his predecessor, or encourage the players to show more sense of adventure? Whatever the answer, he doesn’t have a great deal to lose. His team will not be favourites to win the game and his own future is not going to be decided one way or the other by the result. He is highly unlikely to be offered the coach’s job on a permanent basis (and appears not to want it anyway) and the question of the assistant’s position will be decided by factors other than the result of one friendly. Yet he could attract plenty of goodwill from the players if they feel a more relaxed spirit in the camp, and from the media if a decent performance is forthcoming.

We now know that the Turkey game will precede the first spring round of Corgoň Liga fixtures, after the matches scheduled for this weekend were unsurprisingly postponed following a meeting of the Union of League Clubs (ULK) on Monday. Even by its own standards, Slovakia has experienced extreme conditions this month. First, there was a spell of freezing weather, with temperatures as low as -20 Celsius several nights in succession in some areas. This was followed by heavy snow, some northern regions recording their worst falls since records began. A thaw is currently underway, especially in the south, but that simply means that waterlogged pitches are now a danger. Of the six clubs due to stage home games this weekend, four (Zlaté Moravce, Nitra, Ružomberok and Banská Bystrica) stated clearly that they were in favour of a postponement, while Košice and Dunajská Streda also said they would have found it difficult to get their pitches ready.

The first games of the spring will now take place on the weekend of March 2nd-4th. Tuesday March 27th is the new date for the postponed fixtures.

The ULK appear to have taken the only sensible decision on offer here. Yet again, though, I can’t help thinking that the whole episode is just another argument in favour of something that’s never going to happen ; Slovakia’s adoption of a Spring-Autumn (eg March-November) football season.

James Baxter


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Feb 13 2012

Spring Season Corgoň Liga Build-Up

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With just 11 days to go before the planned resumption of this season’s Corgoň Liga, there must be doubt as to whether the first round of games will actually go ahead. True, the Union of League Clubs (ULK) made a ‘decision’ last Friday not to announce an early postponement of all fixtures due to take place the weekend after next. But, with Slovakia still affected by extremely cold weather (night-time temperatures of -20C have been common in northern areas recently), it is difficult to imagine playing conditions being anywhere near suitable.

The ULK are due to meet again on February 20th, when they will either decide after all to postpone the first round of games or leave the final decisions to individual clubs and match-officials. Union president Dušan Tittel says he is keen to avoid last minute call-offs, but also points out that, since the weather is less severe in some parts of the country than others, it may well be possible for at least some games to go ahead.

Representatives of MFK Ružomberok, Dukla Banská Bystrica and Vion Zlaté Moravce, all due to stage home matches in the first round, have already stated that they would prefer postponements. Pitch conditions are one obvious reason – ‘Ruža’ director Milan Baraník says that his club’s surface has a 15cm covering of snow on it – but so too is the well-being of players and spectators. Peter Krejčí, the Czech national team doctor, believes that football should not be played at temperatures of below -12C because of adverse affects on the body. While temperatures next weekend will probably not be quite as low as that, some clubs say they have not been able to train properly because of the weather and that, if games do go ahead as scheduled, players might be at greater risk of injury as a result.

At least players get to run around in the cold, an option not afforded to those who pay to watch them. Those of us who follow the German Bundesliga will have noted that recent Friday night fixtures Nuremburg v Dortmund and Wolfsburg v Freiburg were both played in temperatures of around -11C. A remarkable 45,000 turned out for the Nuremburg game and 23,000 for the Wolfsburg match but it’s difficult to envisage even four-figure attendances at Corgoň Liga games if it’s still much below zero. That’s to say nothing of the discomfort involved in sitting or standing for long periods in such conditions.

It’s a shame that almost all discussion ahead of the opening ‘spring’ round is about the weather, because the games themselves look interesting. The top four sides are all away ; leaders Žilina face a difficult test at Zlaté Moravce, second-placed Slovan are Ladislav Jurkemík’s first scheduled opponents as Nitra coach, Trnava are at Bystrica and Senica at Ružomberok. The bottom two, Dunajská Streda and Prešov are due to meet in southern Slovakia, and it‘s 10th v 9th in the east, where Košice play Trenčín.

Looking back 12 months, last season’s games at this stage gave a fairly sound indication of how the rest of the campaign would go. Žilina’s lead at the top was cut after defeat at Prešov, where conditions were more suitable for ice-skating than football. They never really recovered and ended up finishing third. Slovan, the eventual champions, started their spring charge with an emphatic win at Trnava, while Dubnica, who would finish bottom, missed chance after chance in a 0-0 home draw with Košice.

Next week‘s games have a similarly significant look about them, so let’s at least hope they take place in the conditions they deserve.

James Baxter

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Feb 02 2012

Who Will Succeed Vladimir Weiss?

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There had been speculation in The Slovakia media over Vladimír Weiss’s future long before his actual departure as coach of the country’s national team. Now that he has actually quit, attention has rapidly turned to potential successors, with three candidates getting the most prominent mentions.

The clear favourite is Pavel Vrba. I wrote at length about him in an article 15 months ago and there really isn’t much to add here, though he has only enhanced his credentials in the meantime, by winning a Czech league title and taking Viktoria Plzeň to this season’s Champions League group stages. He is currently at a training camp in Cyprus with his Viktoria squad and claims not to have received an offer from the SFZ, though he does admit that president Ján Kováčik is a ‘good friend’ of Plzeň owner Tomáš Paclík. Does that mean we can expect a signed contract and plenty of hearty back-slapping sometime in the coming weeks? Quite possibly, though the Czech media is still speculating that qualification for Euro 2012 might not be enough to save Michal Bílek’s job and that Vrba would be just the man to lead his own country’s national side rather than that of its eastern neighbours.

The next candidate, and the favourite of those who believe a Slovak should take the post, is Stanislav Griga. His claim certainly has plenty going for it. He was a fine player himself, representingCzechoslovakia 34 times and scoring 8 goals, and a three year spell (1999-2002) in charge of the Slovak Under-21 side will have given him some insight into the national set-up from a coaching point of view. His club coaching experience is rich and varied and he is a very astute tactician. Purists might have reservations about him, given the rather pragmatic style of play his current Senica team tend to employ, but he  shares with Weiss the capacity to get results with limited-looking teams.

While Vrba is Czech and Griga is Slovak, Jozef Chovanec, the third favourite, is both. He comes from a small village near Púchov, where he started his playing career, but is  a Czech citizen. He has had long spells as both player and coach with Sparta Prague, and was in charge of the Czech Republic’s national team from 1998-2001, a period which included qualification for Euro 2000. This level of experience, and the fact that he is currently out of work, are his main attractions. They are offset by a dour, aloof public persona and a sense that his best work may already be behind him.

If the state of the SFZ’s finances is so dire that a cheaper alternative has to be sought, there are younger coaches currently doing admirable work in the Corgoň Liga. Ľubomír Nosický, who has done well to overcame the chaos surrounding the start of Žilina’s current season is one, Juraj Jarábek, whose Vion Zlaté Moravce team has never stopped improving, is another. But neither of these men is at an advanced enough stage of his career to convince the wider footballing public that he would be able to successfully manage the higher profiles and bigger egos of national team players.

Recalling a previous coach for a second spell in charge is not much of an option either. Dušan Galis, who did lead Slovakia to a qualification play-off for the 2006 World Cup, is now a politician. His immediate predecessor, Ladislav Jurkemík, who failed to reach Euro 2004 and has just taken on the Nitra job, has made a speciality out of steering faltering club sides clear of the domestic relegation zone, but would seem to have little new to offer at international level.

The possibility that the SFZ will seriously consider a candidate from further afield than the Czech Republic seems so remote as to be barely worth discussing. Even if the association wasn’t determined to hire someone who ‘understands our mentality’, any half-decent foreign coach who happens to be available, would almost certainly be too expensive anyway. Other Czechs have been given fleeting mention, however, including František Komňacký – who won the 2006 Corgoň Liga title with Ružomberok – and Vítězslav Lavička, currently in charge of FC Sydney inAustralia.

The question of how finance will affect will affect the appointment of the next coach is clearly a crucial one. So too is the connected issue of what will happen to Weiss’s assistant Michal Hipp, given the likelihood that the new appointment may insist on bringing a right-hand man of his own. Even taking these matters into consideration, the media still seem convinced Vrba will get the job. Šport even airily dismisses the matter of the Czech Republic post, claiming that Slovakia ‘offers the greater potential’. For what it’s worth Vrba would be my choice, though I’d be almost as happy to see Griga given the opportunity.

James Baxter

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