Archive for March, 2012

Mar 25 2012

Corgon Liga Round 22: Zilina 3 Points Clear

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There was a certain symmetry about the latest round of Corgoň Liga fixtures. The top two sides both placed host to teams looking increasingly safe from relegation, those in third and fourth places were at home to the bottom two, there was a game between two clubs who have lost touch with the upper reaches of the table since the spring programme started, and another between two inconsistent mid-table outfits.

Going into Saturday’s game, leaders Žilina would have been well aware that visitors Košice had enjoyed 1-0 wins in their last two away fixtures. A drowsy first 38 minutes or so proved that the easterners are well-organised defensively and quite happy to get behind the ball and let opposing sides pass the ball from side to side in front of them. Then, Žilina’s three winter signings injected some life into proceedings. Serge Akakpo played a quick ball out to the left, full-back Ricardo Nunez sent over a pacy cross and Ján Novák deflected the ball into the net via the right-hand post. As a former Košice player, Novák refused to celebrate what turned out to be the game’s only goal, but he will be as aware as anyone of its potential importance.

The sight of the AS Trenčín team-bus pulling into an away venue has not been one to inspire great terror anywhere this season, so Slovan Bratislava will have felt confident of maintaining their title challenge ahead of the promoted side’s visit to Pasienky. But, things did not go according to Vladimír Weiss’s plans. Twice Slovan led, through Karol Mészáros and Ondřej Smetana, but twice Trenčín pulled them back, thanks to goals from Filip Hlohovský and David Depetris. It could have been worse for Slovan ; Matúš Putnocký pulled off a fantastic save from Depetris as Trenčín went for an injury-time winner. Weiss, who was critical of his side in victory over Prešov last week, declared himself satisfied with everything except the result.

Trnava have replaced Senica in third place, courtesy of an easy 3-0 home win over a hapless Dunajská Streda side in Friday’s televised match. It was all over after 18 minutes, following goals from Roman Procházka, Ladislav Tomaček (a penalty) and Martin Vyskočil. Stanislav Griga’s Senica, meanwhile, failed to score for the second home match in succession, drawing 0-0 against DAC’s relegation rivals Prešov. Both sides hit the woodwork twice, but the result will be seen by Prešov as a welcome bonus ahead of their midweek trip to southern Slovakia for the big survival battle. If DAC fail to win that one, you feel, they’ll be clear favourites to take the drop.

Few would have expected Vion Zlaté Moravce and Ružomberok to serve up a thriller, given that both had had disappointing starts to the spring. In fact, they treated the paying public to eight goals, including two hat-tricks. It was Ruža who came out on top ; strikes from Tomáš Ďubek and Richard Lásik, added to Pavol Masaryk’s three goals, had them 5-1 up by the 65th minute. Andrej Hodek, who had equalised Ďubek’s opener, gave Vion hope with further goals in the 73rd and 80th minutes but, despite continuing to create chances, they were unable to complete their comeback.

The 1-1 draw between Banská Bystrica and Nitra was a rather more predictable outcome. Karel Kroupa headed Nitra in front after 48 minutes but, with just eight minutes left, a powerful angled shot from Lukáš Laksík earned the home side a point. Coaches Štefan Zat´ko and Ladislav Jurkemík agreed that it was a decent game which produced a fair outcome. The players are due some credit for that, since the playing surface at Štadión SNP appeared to be in appalling condition.

The programme over the next two weeks or so is very intense. At the top of the league, Žilina, glad as they will be to have seen off Košice, have two tricky away fixtures before they face Slovan at home on April 3rd. Weiss’s team, for their part, are away to Nitra in midweek, then play a televised game against Senica next Friday.

Another thought that strikes me is that, if either Žilina or Slovan do win the league this season, they will do so despite, rather than because of, their home fans. Weiss has found it necessary to answer criticism of his tactics at Pasienky, claiming that he has adopted a long-ball game because the poor playing surface there isn’t conducive to a passing style. Meanwhile, each of Žilina’s spring home games has been notable for the lack of patience shown by ‘supporters’, some of whom appear to believe the team should be running up double-figure scores. Against Košice, the 60th minute replacement of Novák by Roman Gergel was greeted by howls of disapproval from the stands. Of all the factors which will decide the title race, it is beginning to seem that ability to block out negativity will be among the most important.

Žilina 1 Košice 0
Slovan 2 Trenčín 2
Trnava 3 DAC 0
Senica 0 Prešov 0
Zlaté Moravce 3 Ružomberok 5
Banská Bystrica 1 Nitra 1
James Baxter

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Mar 24 2012

The Sad Story of Púchov

Published by under Domestic

Of all the one-off occasions involving Slovak football clubs since independence, few have been bigger than Matador Púchov’s UEFA Cup first-round, first-leg meeting with Barcelona in September 2003. In front of a crowd of 18,000, Milan Jambor scored in injury-time to equalise Patrick Kluivert’s strike for the Catalans and earn his side a well-deserved draw. The natural order was predictably restored two weeks later as Barca won 8-0 in a rainswept, almost empty Nou Camp. But the gulf in the two clubs’ fortunes has widened considerably since then. Messi, Xavi and friends, as everyone surely knows, are pursuing their third Champions League trophy in four years. Púchov, in sad contrast, have resigned from Slovak football’s III liga Západ (3rd division west).

Things have been going wrong at Púchov ever since they lost their Corgoň Liga place in 2006. Their six-year stay in the top-flight had taken in two Slovak Cup Final appearances, including the 2003 victory over Slovan Bratislava which sent them into Europe and, ultimately, to the meeting with Barca. But relegation brought the loss of major sponsorship deals, including one with the Matador tyre company worth around 1.3 million Euros a year. As a result, the club decided it wouldn’t be able to compete in the second tier, so dropped two divisions, changing its name to FK Púchov in the process. An against-the-odds promotion was earned in 2008/2009, but II liga football brought further problems. Relegation at the end of 2010/2011 was inevitable, especially as the club had had to concede some of its early spring away fixtures, having been unable to afford the costs of travel.

According to director Ľubomír Taldo, a former player for the club, things seemed to be looking up for Púchov last summer. Šport centrum Púchov, who had stepped in to ensure that travel costs could be met towards the end of 2010/2011, were joined in discussions over the financing of the club by Continental (who had taken over Matador) and the local authority (who own and maintain the stadium). No agreement was reached, however, and, with club owner Jaroslav Rosina unable to find other investors, the decision was taken last week to withdraw the club from the III liga.

Naturally, there is now a degree of recrimination going on. Taldo, while admitting that the local authority had always met their obligations in terms of the upkeep of the ground, suggests that some authorities do more for their local clubs. He also feels that Continental, by far the largest employer in Púchov, could have offered more support. Meanwhile, the town’s mayor, Marián Michalec, blames the club’s situation firmly on Rosina and his ‘lack of transparency‘.

There is at least agreement on the immediate priorities. The club runs no fewer than ten youth teams – Taldo says that eight players from the oldest age category would have formed the basis of next season’s senior side – and both club and authority are determined to provide the best possible conditions for these to continue. If there is to be a senior team next season, it will have to join a league at least two divisions lower than the one it resigned from. But neither Taldo nor Michalec are taking even that eventuality for granted.

And now for a few personal recollections. I’ve seen plenty of Žilina v Púchov games and have visited the imaginatively named Štadión FK Púchov on a few occasions. The facilities are not the best – certainly not up to the demands of the Barca game, which was moved to Trnava – but there are worse venues, especially on a nice spring or autumn day. The river Váh flows behind one end of the ground and there are bars with outdoor terraces attached to the nearby sports centre. My first visit, though, was on a snowy day in late November 2004 and I was holding a cup of hot wine as Marek Bakoš curled a free-kick round the Žilina wall to score the only goal of the game. In spring 2006, I was present for one of Púchov’s last top division games, against an experienced, clued-up Artmedia Bratislava. The visitors won 3-1, but a skinny, left-footed teenager called Patrik Mráz had a fine game for the hosts. Artmedia must have noticed, as they soon signed him up. By the time of my next Púchov home game, in July 2009, Mráz had moved to Žilina, but he was one of the 400 or so hardy souls watching through a violent thunderstorm as his former side edged to a 1-0 win over Duslo Šaľa.

Bakoš and Mráz are not household names exactly, but their careers are developing nicely and mention of them is a reminder that Púchov have played their part in the development of Slovakia’s footballing talent over the years. Prominent Czech and Slovak coaches have been associated with the club too, including two of those currently linked with the vacant post of Slovak national team coach. Jozef Chovanec was born near Púchov and played in the club’s youth sides before moving to Cheb and then to Prague to begin his long association with Sparta. Pavel Vrba, meanwhile, was head coach between 2004 and 2006.

With the immediate future so bleak, nostalgia must surely be a temptation for all those associated with Púchov, even if it is of little practical use. The same could perhaps be said for wondering what happened to some of the 18,000 ‘home fans’ who turned up to watch Puyol, Ronaldinho and the rest back in September 2003.

James Baxter

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Mar 18 2012

Corgon Liga Round 21: Slovan & Zilina move clear

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You have to be pretty flinty-hearted not to feel a little sympathy for the coach and players of DAC Dunajská Streda. The side finished the autumn phase of this season at the bottom of the Corgoň Liga and players often did not receive their salaries. Cash-flow problems became more acute over the winter following a dispute between the club owner and the town authority (an important sponsor). Training for the spring campaign began 12 days later than scheduled and there were doubts as to whether the club would be able to fulfil its remaining league fixtures. Those fears have now eased but the first three of those fixtures are, you suspect, exactly the ones no’one would have wanted ; Slovan Batislava (away), Senica (home) and Žilina (away).

DAC were praised for their performances in defeat in the first two of those games. On Saturday, they came to Žilina, played bravely and attractively, and lost again. With Krešimir Kordič partenering Dzon Delarge up front and three attacking midfielders just behind, the visitors couldn’t be accused of trying to defend and hang on for a draw. Sadly for them, though, they gave their hosts too much space. Žilina took the lead halfway through the first half with the sort of goal Róbert Pich is making his trademark. He stepped inside from the left and lashed home a right-foot shot from the corner of the penalty-area. Several further chances were created and missed and, with around 20 minutes to go, the home team became nervous, allowing Delarge a couple of presentable opportunities to equalise. He snatched at both of them, however, and his team’s defeat was confirmed in injury-time, when Miroslav Barčík marked his 300th appearance for Žilina by finishing well after good play by substitutes Jean Deza and Ján Novák.

DAC can take a little heart from the thought that fellow strugglers Prešov are not getting out of their reach. Yesterday, the eastern Slovak side were beaten 2-0 by Slovan at Pasienky. Ondřej Smetana headed the first goal, his third in two home fixtures, and Russian youngster Nika Piliev tapped in the second after excellent work down the right from Juraj Halenár. Judging from TV highlights, this was another open game with chances at both ends. Afterwards, Prešov’s engaging new coach, former Dinamo Kiev captain Serhij Kovalec, appeared more satisfied with his side’s performance than Vladimír Weiss was with Slovan’s. Still, Weiss can surely be happy with his team’s 100% start to the spring, even if they haven’t yet overtaken Žilina.

Žilina and Slovan have opened up a little gap at the top after their four pursuers all lost their latest games. Senica, masters of the 1-0 away win, were given a dose of their own medicine by visiting Košice on Friday night. Ivorian striker Karim Diaby scored the decisive goal on the half-hour. As well as moving Košice up a place and virtually ensuring that they won’t be facing a relegation battle this season, this result has damaged Senica’s title hopes.

Trnava also suffered a surprise home defeat, in their case to Nitra. The undoubted stars of this match were goalkeeper Lukáš Hroššo, whose string of spectacular saves frustrated Trnava time and time again, and Brazilian winger Cleber Silva Nasciemento, the creator of Nitra’s first goal and scorer of their second. Karol Pavelka pulled one goal back for the home side but Nitra held on, and now look likely to finish the season in mid-table obscurity.

With just one point from their first two spring fixtures, Trenčín might have been worried about being dragged into a relegation battle, but they eased their fears on Saturday with a 3-1 win at home to Vion Zlaté Moravce. Filip Hlohovský created the first two goals, for David Depetris and Peter Mazan, with Boris Goldan unselfishly setting up the clincher for Lester Peltier. A fine outside-of-the-foot shot by Martin Hruška equalised Depetris’s goal but, as coach Juraj Jarábek acknowledged, Vion were largely outplayed. They need to improve if they intend to keep challenging for a European place.

Ružomberok, beaten 2-0 in the central Slovakia derby by mid-table Banská Bystrica, appear to be another fading force. A powerful header from Marek Hlinka put Bystrica ahead but, good as it was, that goal was overshadowed by an extraordinary long-range free-kick from Radoslav Augustín, which caught ‘keeper Libor Hrdlička hopelessly out of position. This is at least the third such goal scored in Czech and Slovak football this spring, following Pavel Eliaš’s effort for Jablonec at Ostrava and Miroslav Karhan’s for Trnava against Vion. Credit to all the scorers for their opportunism, but perhaps it’s time goalkeepers started learning from each other’s mistakes.

This is an interesting point of the Corgoň Liga season. Every team has now played twenty-one games and next Saturday sees the start of a crucial spell of five rounds of fixtures in two weeks. Within that spell, Žilina v Slovan, scheduled for Tuesday 3rd April, looks huge, though both sides will be keen not to drop points before then. At the bottom, DAC v Prešov, postponed from February 25th and rearranged for March 27th, could provide a turning-point in the fight for survival. Stay with us to see what happens…..

James Baxter

5 responses so far

Mar 16 2012

The story of Serge Akakpo, Centre Back: MSK Zilina

Published by under Domestic

Of all the players signed by Slovak clubs this winter, MŠK Žilina’s Togolese centre-back Serge Ognadon Akakpo surely has the most dramatic tale to tell. For a 24 year-old, his club career has already been varied enough ; Žilina are his fourth employer in as many countries. But the event that defines his life is the 2010 terrorist attack on the Togo team-bus as it made its way to the side’s base in Angola for the African Nations Cup. Akakpo, shot twice in the back, was one of two players injured. Four people were killed, including assistant coach Amalete Abalo and spokesman of Togo’s football federation Stanislas Ocloo.

Akakpo was born in the Togolese capital Lomé in 1987 and came through the youth ranks at French club AJ Auxerre. He also represented France at four age-group levels from the age of 17. He made his senior debut for Auxerre aged 18, but first-team chances were limited until, in 2009, an offer came from FC Vaslui of Romania. Apart from increased opportunities, this move had two main attractions ; Vaslui’s regular participation in European competition and the fact that their coach, Viorel Moldovan, was already known to Akakpo through his work with France’s youth sides.

Within 18 months, however, things had begun to turn sour. Vaslui had internal problems, and the players were not being paid. Rather than wait for a resolution, Akakpo put matters in FIFA’s hands and left, for Slovenian club NK Celje. He says that he has received one installment of the money owed to him by Vaslui and that an agreement is in place concerning the remainder. After 18 months and 31 league appearances in Slovenia, he has now arrived in Žilina. There is a certain co’incidence here, since former MŠK goalkeeper Dušan Kuciak was one of two Slovak team-mates at Vaslui, the other being former Nitra defender Pavol Farkaš. Akakpo says these two became his friends and that, when times were especially bad, they would tell him that Slovakia was a better place for a footballer to be than Romania. Although he heard plenty about Žilina from Kuciak, he never considered the possibility that he would one day sign for them.

Akakpo hints that his decisiveness in quitting Vaslui over the financial situation there can be explained by what had happened to him just six months before. His Angola experience – and the fact that he came within centimetres of death – has made him both determined to take advantage of what every day brings and reluctant to spend too much time resolving issues not of his own making. The circumstances of the events in Angola are fairly well-known ; the Togo party were travelling through the unstable but oil-rich Cabinda region, close to the border with Congo, when members of an armed separatist group started machine-gunning the bus. Following the incident, there was speculation and debate over whether the team would go-ahead with its participation in the competition – Akakpo says that half the players were in favour of doing so, while the other half were against – but they eventually decided to pull out.

Akakpo admits he doesn’t know how the bullets that hit him didn’t seriously damage his spinal chord or any internal organs. He spent two days receiving emergency treatment in Angola and was then moved to a hospital in Togo, where he spent a further week. Incredibly, within two-and-a-half-months, he had physically recovered from his injuries. He is now in a position to add considerably to the 25 international caps he has won since his full international debut in 2008, and is the current captain of his country.

It is clearly too soon to judge how Akakpo’s Žilina career will go, given that he has played just two competitive games for the club. But the early signs are good. Though not the tallest, his spring in the air is something to behold, he is decisive in the challenge and he tries to use the ball constructively. He says his central-defensive partnership with Jozef Piaček is benefitting nicely from the winter preparation, including friendly games, they had together. His closest off-field relationship, meanwhile, is with right-back Ernest Mabouka, who originates from Cameroon and is a fellow French speaker.

Žilina fans will be interested to learn that Akakpo has not yet won an honour at senior club level, so he is well-motivated to help the club’s bid for the Corgoň Liga title. Understandably, followers of rival clubs will hope he does not succeed in that aim. Regardless of sporting loyalties, though, his courage and sense of perspective in dealing with a truly appalling event, experienced at a very young age, are qualities all of us can only admire.
James Baxter

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Mar 16 2012

A Word from Britski Belasi

Published by under Uncategorized

Having not posted anything myself since January 28th, I think it’s about time for a quick update before I post the next of James Baxter’s excellent articles.

As the mid-season friendlies came thick and fast back in January, I thoroughly enjoyed being back out watching Slovan, and felt confident about not only their chances domestically, but also my own chances of catching a few games in the second half of the season.

As has tended to be the way for me in recent years, no sooner did I start to feel like I could say I’d spent a decent amount of time in Slovakia, things have once again changed completely.

I returned to work on 1-February and since then have not spent a single day at home. A wonderful holiday in the sun coincided with major changes, both personal and professional. The changes are still ongoing, things are moving forward and I have a lot to look forward to. However, for now – my days in Slovakia appear numbered.

James will continue to contribute his fantastic articles, and I’m sure our dedicated readership will keep the discussion going. We hope to continue attracting a steady stream of new visitors to the site, and the Britski Belasi blog will continue to operate in it’s current form. As always, any written contributions are welcome.

From my side, if I have the opportunity to acquire some material suitable for the close scrutiny attracted on this site, I will continue to post occasionally. There could even be a new cross-continental theme working it’s way into the blog, but we’ll leave that for later.

Many thanks to James to his contributions, to the readers, especially those who comment regularly, and for the support from the blog host. Enjoy the second half of the season, wherever your club and national preferences lie! Slovan do toho!

Dan @britskibelasi

5 responses so far

Mar 13 2012

Hearts v St Mirren

Published by under European

Hearts 2 St Mirren 2 
Plenty of action at Tynecastle – but still no Marián Kello
Coming from England and now living abroad, my relationship with Scottish football has always been a fairly distant one. Yet it’s also been tinged with a little romance. This has a bit to do with Celtic and Rangers but less than you might expect. Of course, these clubs are grand institutions with rich histories, passionate supporters and a fantastic stadium apiece. But they also inspire a certain ambivalence in me, partly because, in the late 80s and early 90s, there was an assumption that all supporters of English clubs should have an affinity with one or other of them. I never quite saw the point of pretending a great love for a club from far away on the dubious grounds that a section of its fans liked to play at being paramilitaries. I thus left Glasgow’s ‘big two’ alone and indulged myself in feelings of silent contempt when, say, Manchester United fans displayed their Irish banners or City fans (or West Brom fans for that matter) started their ‘no surrender to the IRA’ chants.
For me, the appeal of Scottish football came more from quirky things like team and ground names (Queen of the South, Heart of Midlothian, Cappielow, Ochilview), from growing up in an era when some of the finest players ever to have graced England’s top leagues (such as Alan Hansen and Kenny Dalglish) were moving south, and because there was a proportionate exposure to it on TV. You used to be able to watch the Scottish Cup Final after its English counterpart had finished, for example. Best of all, there was Archie Macpherson, who used to present a Scottish preview for BBC’s Football Focus. Archie was an excellent broadcaster but one who often seemed to be battling against adverse circumstances. I recall him once attempting to report from the centre-circle at Pittodrie as a blizzard blew his umbrella inside out. Sometime later, he started a piece from Ibrox just as someone on the Rangers staff decided it was high time the volume levels of the stadium PA system were checked.
All these things have made me want to experience more of the Scottish game first hand, but realism dictates that a serious north of the border ground-hop is something I’ll probably only ever do in my head. Dreams of Glebe Park in Brechin or Arbroath’s Gayfield may never be fulfilled. Still, at least I can now claim an ‘Edinburgh double’. Nearly 18 years after I saw my first ever ‘live’ Scottish game – a truly dire 0-0 draw between Hibernian and Kilmarnock at Easter Road – I pitched up at Tynecastle last weekend to see which of Hearts or St Mirren would progress to the Scottish Cup semi-finals.
Scotland is clearly a nation that’s crazy about football but I’d say Edinburgh is far from its most football-mad city. The biggest stadium in town – much, much bigger than Easter Road and Tynecastle put together – is the Murrayfield rugby ground. The city-centre sports shops also seem to stock a lot of rugby stuff, while Hearts and Hibs shirts get less window-space than those of England’s big football clubs. That seems a shame, because Hearts and Hibs have made their different contributions to the city’s history, indeed to their country’s history. I was especially fascinated by the fact, commemorated in a memorial near Haymarket station, that Hearts were the first British club whose players signed up en masse to fight in World War I.
Walking to Tynecastle from the centre of Edinburgh reminded me just a little of walking to QPR’s Loftus Road. You know you’re going the right way because there are plenty of people in football colours ahead of you, the shops and businesses – cab firms, take-aways, launderettes – are very much those of the inner-city, and you don’t see the ground until the last minute, when it suddenly appears at the end of short, terraced streets. It could only be in Scotland, though, because these streets are lined with the sort of solid, stone-built tenement blocks that you hardly see in England.
The ground itself is a beauty, Archibald Leitch’s old main stand contrasting nicely with the steep-sided modern stands on the other three sides. Sit high enough in the Wheatfield stand and you have a view east across the city to the castle and even to Arthur’s Seat, the dramatic rocky crag that overlooks the Hibs ground. Another feature I’ve always associated with Scotland became apparent to me as I entered ; the smallness of the pitch. I read years ago that the smallest pitch in England would be about the average size for Scotland – and the Tynecastle pitch looked small by any standards.
There were other throwbacks too. I was delighted to find that both teams were to play in their traditional colours. Hearts have got rid of the broad white stripe that spoiled their maroon for a while, and St Mirren didn’t have the ugly patch on the back of their striped shirts that English sides with similar strips are forced to wear in order to make identifying players’ numbers easier. Best of all, there was no idiot PA announcer prancing around on the side of the side of the pitch and drowning out the very atmosphere he claims to be attempting to whip up. In fact, there were no announcements at all until the 27th minute, the time of St Mirren’s first goal, when we learned that there had been ‘technical problems’.
For the first 30 minutes of the match, the Hearts team appeared to have more than just ‘technical’ problems. In fact, the neat, compact visitors from Paisley made the home players look as though they’d come onto the pitch straight from a hangover-busting fry-up in a nearby café. As well as looking brighter and more keyed-up, St Mirren had got their tactics right, their three-man central midfield enabling them to dominate possession. Their problem was that they only scored one goal during this period, a well-placed left-foot free-kick by Graham Carey, as opposed to the three or four they should have scored. Hearts’ equaliser after 37 minutes was an example of how the simple things done well can compensate for all-round inferiority. Danny Grainger took an inswinging corner and Craig Beattie headed down and in.
Manager Paulo Sergio didn’t let that deflect him from a necessary substitution, though. He took off hapless midfielder Adrian Mrowiec, sent on Rudi Skácel and reorganised his men into a diamond formation. Now it was St Mirren looking ropey. After 48 minutes, Beattie crossed from the left and Skácel’s glancing header made it 2-1. In a way, the visitors’ response at this point, though more prosaic than their attractive football of the opening period, was the most admirable aspect of their performance. Led by Steven Thomson, their battling number 8, they dug in hard, stemmed the flow of Hearts attacks and gradually got back into the game again. And the move that led to their 83rd minute equaliser, started and finished by Nigel Hasselbaink via a deflection off Marius Zaliukas, was an excellent passage of play. There was time for St Mirren to miss a chance to win the game and for their goalkeeper Craig Samson to get away with handling the ball outside his box, but it finished honours even at 2-2.
In truth, the Samson incident was one of a string of controversial refereeing decisions. St Mirren had two penalty appeals turned down in the first-half, Beattie had a goal wrongly ruled out for offside, and there might have been a foul in the build-up to St Mirren’s second goal. But Sergio and St Mirren boss Danny Lennon, to their credit, preferred not to talk about any of these afterwards, concentrating instead on the fact that it had been a fine cup-tie which neither side had deserved to lose.
I’m more than happy to concur with that – controversy is all part of the fun – but the day did have two mildly disappointing aspects for me. Firstly, Marián Kello didn’t play. With his contract up at the end of the season, he is out of the Hearts side for ‘political reasons’. With Ján Mucha’s chances limited at Everton, Slovakia can be thankful that another Scotland-based goalkeeper, Dušan Pernís, continues to get regular games at Dundee United. Secondly, the crowd at Tynecastle was under 9,000. The Scottish Cup deserves better than that, I feel, especially when neither Hearts nor St Mirren have much else to play for this season and must surely see the competition as a fine opportunity to secure an honour and get into next season’s Europa League. An early kick-off for TV probably didn’t help, nor did Hearts’ decision to charge full-price for tickets. The day wasn’t all about throwbacks after all.
Still, after witnessing this game, I can guarantee that there would be worse places to be next Wednesday night than St Mirren Park for the replay. A Hearts win would increase the possibility of an all-Edinburgh final – they won the cup as recently as 2006 but Hibs haven’t won it for a remarkable 110 years. Historical curiosities like that, and the way they are  embraced so readily, are yet another essential part of Scottish football’s appeal.
James Baxter

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Mar 04 2012

Corgon Liga Spring Season Finally Under Way

Published by under Uncategorized

I have a theory that what happens in the Corgoň Liga’s opening round of spring fixtures tends to have a bearing on how the major issues will be resolved in May, but it’s difficult to draw too many conclusions from last weekend’s games. The top four teams were all made to work hard in their respective home matches, but all duly won. Meanwhile, the bottom two, DAC Dunajská Streda and Prešov, both lost, leaving few clues as to which of them will end up in the relegation place.

It does now look a little safer to say that fifth-placed Vion Zlaté Moravce and sixth-placed Ružomberok, unluckily defeated at Trnava and Žilina respectively, will struggle to stay in the title race and that Košice, whose 1-0 win away to neighbours Prešov took them nine points clear of the bottom place, will almost certainly not go down. Otherwise, the weekend did not tell us a great deal.

Ahead of the Žilina-Ružomberok match, one thing that interested me was the likely impact of Žilina’s new signings, Togo captain Serge Akakpo and Portugese full-back Ricardo Nunez. It’s another theory of mine that the quality of foreign players at Corgoň Liga clubs is edging upwards. The winter transfers of Karim Guédé and Issa Koro-Kone to clubs in the top German and French leagues and the form of Mamadou Bagayoko in Slovan Bratislava’s Europa League campaign are decent evidence of this. And the performances of Issiaka Bello, Momodou Ceesay and, more recently, Jean Deza suggest that Žilina themselves are becoming pretty good at spotting genuine foreign talent.

For 45 minutes, however, it was Ružomberok who dominated. They took the lead after 18 minutes when Lukáš Greššák got a touch to an inswinging free-kick. Filip Serečin then missed a great chance to make it 2-0 when he ran clear of the defence but failed to clear ‘keeper Martin Krnáč with an attempted chip. With Juraj Vavrík and Tomáš Ďubek running the midfield for the visitors, Kenyan winger Patrik Oboya looking pacy and athletic, and Pavol Masaryk using his guile in attack, Žilina were barely in the game. They turned it round in the second-half, though. The key seemed to be a decrease in the number of long, high balls to Momodou Ceesay and an increased intensity to their pressing game. On 54 minutes, Oboya was panicked into fouling Stanislav Angelovič and Ceesay converted the penalty. Then, with 15 minutes to go, Tomáš Majtán scored the winner following a goalmouth scramble.

The new boys did indeed suggest that they have quality. Centre-back Akakpo does not look physically imposing, but he has impressive spring and won most of his aerial challenges. On the ground, he was always decisive, often committing himself to muscling in front of attackers to stop them shielding the ball – not the easiest thing to do against a player like Masaryk. Nunez, for his part, defended well and showed impressive speed when getting forward. With more games, and better understanding with their new team-mates, these two could establish themselves among the best of the league’s foreign imports.

Žilina’s overall performance (‘mixed, with elements of the very good and the bloody awful’ would be a fair description) seems to have been largely reflected in what their main rivals produced. Slovan went 1-0 down to a superbly-taken Dzon Delarge goal for DAC – ‘sleepy’ defending and goalkeeping were to blame, according to Vladimír Weiss – but recovered to win 3-1.

Vion had plenty of good chances at Trnava, including a penalty, but missed them all and were condemned to defeat when Miroslav Karhan’s last-minute free-kick caught ‘keeper Martin Kuciak out of position. Senica took an early lead against Nitra, were pegged back to 1-1 by Filip Moravčík’s long-range 64th minute goal, but secured victory with two late penalties. The win was overshadowed, though, when defender Petr Pavlík suffered severe concussion in a challenge with a Nitra attacker.

One thing that hasn’t changed much for Žilina or Senica is their poor numerical support. The official attendances at their games yesterday were 1,476 and 1,520 respectively. In Žilina’s case, this is partly the result of the latest in a sequence of fall-outs between the board and the fan-club over the former’s insistence on registering the names and addresses of people who buy tickets for the end stands. Slovan, by contrast, are trying to attract families to games by means of a dedicated zone in the ground and ‘one adult, one child’ tickets priced at just 3 Euros each. They were rewarded yesterday with a crowd of 3,350, a significant improvement on the turnouts for many of their autumn matches. The sunny weather probably helped, but good on the club anyway for showing some initiative. I’ve often thought that empty grounds and lack of atmosphere make Corgoň Liga football look worse than it really is. Hopefully then, the title-race will continue to be well-contested and the crowds will come back to all the grounds.
James Baxter

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Mar 01 2012

Turkey 1-2 Slovakia

Published by under International

Plenty of attention was focused on a national team which lost its first match under a caretaker coach on Wednesday night, but that’s enough about England. Slovakia, by contrast, did the unassuming Michal Hipp proud with a battling 2-1 victory over Turkey in Bursa.
It’s only fair to say that the Slovaks were probably in a less transitional state than their hosts, who appointed Abdullah Avci as their new supremo following defeat to Croatia in the Euro 2012 qualification play-offs and had made sweeping changes to their squad. Hipp, by contrast, retained much of the core of Vladimír Weiss’s team, but the adjustments he did make might have a positive significance for the longer term.
It was two talented youngsters, Vladimír Weiss Junior and Miroslav Stoch, who effectively won the match for Slovakia with superb first-half goals. Weiss beat half the Turkish team in a run from the right-wing to score the first after 24 minutes. 15 minutes later, Stoch, whose mohican haircut recalled a miniature version of Robert de Niro’s Taxi Driver character, cut in from the left and scored with a 20-yard shot. It might have taken a slight deflection on its way in but it was very much Stoch’s goal.
Turkey pulled a goal back with five minutes left to play thanks to some sleepy defending at a corner. That seemed to threaten a nervous close for Slovakia but it was actually they who came closest to scoring again, when substitute Filip Hološko forced a spectacular save from the home ‘keeper after combining with fellow replacement Stanislav Šesták.
Credit for an encouraging result and performance must go largely to Hipp. He appears to be a modest, uncharismatic type but he’s an accomplished tactician, as Weiss‘s tendency to rely on him for identifying opposition strengths and weaknesses had already shown. It could be said that the players were out to impress Pavel Vrba, who had discussions with the SFZ on Monday over the coach’s job, but if there has been a more relaxed atmosphere in the ranks these last few days, it can only reflect well on the temporary boss.
In pure footballing terms, Hipp did one or two things I wouldn’t have expected from Weiss. First, there was the decision to play Tomáš Hubočan in his natural position of centre-back, rather than at left-back. Then there were Marek Bakoš and Šesták, both of whom were given a chance at centre-forward. Weiss had seemed scornful of Bakoš’s claims but, while he did have a quiet debut, he surely does have an international future. Šesták, rather frozen out over recent months, looked eagar and lively during his second-half appearance, linking well with Weiss, Stoch and, later, Hološko.
It was only a friendly of course, and the performance did have its flaws. Ladislav Borbély, my favourite pundit (and not just for his heavy-metal hairstyle), outlined a few of these in his post-match analysis for STV. His first complaint was that the full-backs don’t get forward enough. That seems a little harsh on right-back Peter Pekarík but it’s probably true of Radoslav Zabavník. That said, the Mainz player is probably the best defender of all the Slovak full-backs. Borbély also pointed out that Slovakia lack ball-playing centre-backs, players who can start attacks from deep inside their own half. Weiss was also aware of this shortcoming ; it was the reason he fielded Miroslav Karhan in defence at home to Andorra last June.
Still, considering they have largely disappointed over the last few months, most of the signs were positive for Slovakia. If Vrba wants the coach’s job, he will have seen that he has some decent players to work with. And if Hipp stays in the set-up, there’ll be no shortage of expertise for the new appointment to draw upon.

James Baxter 

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