Archive for September, 2012

Sep 23 2012

Corgon Liga Update 23-Sep

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The temptation to mix carpet metaphors is too strong to resist. Nitra and their star player Seydouba Soumah were, as the Slovaks say, ‘on the carpet’ at the SFZ disciplinary committee on Thursday, answering to the various misdemeanours committed at their home fixture with Trnava the previous week. Soumah was fined 3,400 Euros and banned from football for six months for (this is going to be a long list) an obscene gesture at Trnava fans, stamping on Patrik Čarnota’s chest (for which he was shown a red card), attempting to punch Miroslav Karhan and threatening referee Marek Mastiš. Two other players who were sent off, Marián Kolmokov and Marek Szabo, received bans of three games and one game respectively. As a club, Nitra were fined 10,000 Euros, kicked out of the Slovak Cup and deducted any points gained in their following league game.

There was also an interesting ‘mea culpa‘ from the SFZ in their admission that 26-year old Mastiš was a poor choice of referee for a fixture at which there have been problems in the past. They did, however, decree that Mastiš should have abandoned the game after Soumah’s attack on him. As a result of that mistake, he will not be allowed to officiate in the Corgoň Liga or II Liga until next spring. As for the allegations by Soumah and his club that Trnava players were racially abusing him, the committee ruled that they could not follow up on these at present. None of the match officials heard anything untoward, while Soumah himself was unable to name names. Unsurprisingly, Trnava denied the allegations, though senior player Peter Čvirik did admit that Soumah had been identified as Nitra’s main attacking threat and had thus been subjected to some uncomprising tackles. After all that, we can only hope the second metaphor, the one about ‘sweeping (things) under the carpet’, is not applicable.

Just a personal footnote, though ; Soumah’s last appearance before the fateful Trnava game was at Žilina. He gave easily the most exciting individual performance I’ve seen this season and his slalom through the home defence, ending in an effort that was brilliantly saved by Martin Dúbravka, was an especially memorable passage of play. His skills will be missed during his ban.

As luck would have it, Slovan Bratislava were the team effectively granted a ‘free hit’ at Nitra. They took full advantage, winning 5-2 at Pasienky. Juraj Halenár scored the first and last goals, with Nicolas Gorosito, Lester Peltier and Filip Hlohovský adding the others. Slovan coach Samuel Slovák was sympathetic to his beaten visitors, praising Nitra’s fighting spirit and ability to cause problems going forward. More interestingly, he uttered a curt ‘no comment‘ when asked why Filip Šebo had not figured in his squad.

Žilina were desperate for a win at home to Prešov, both to bring the gap between themselves and Slovan back to three points and to end a run of five games without a victory. Coach Frans Adelaar has been having a sort out in the dressing-room, sending Tomáš Majtán on loan to Baník Ostrava, putting Peter Šulek in the B-team and introducing several teenagers to first-team action. A 3-0 win over the easterners provided early vindication of this policy. Jakub Paur, Ricardo Nunes and Momodou Ceesay were the scorers.

None of the three sides who went into the weekend level on points with Žilina managed to claim victory. Trenčín were held to a 0-0 draw at home to Ružomberok. ‘They played better football than us but that doesn’t mean they have to win,’ said Ruža coach Ladislav Šimčo afterwards.

Košice lost 3-1 away to Myjava, for whom captain Martin Černáček scored twice. His first goal arrived in the opening minute, following a bad mistake by visiting goalkeeper Darko Tofiloski. ‘That influenced the whole match,’ said Košice coach Ján Kozák. ‘It made our defence uncertain.You don’t normally see mistakes like that, even in lower league football.’

As for form side Vion Zlaté Moravce, they were swept aside 3-0 at Senica. The goals here were all scored in the last half-hour. Juraj Piroška got the first from the penalty-spot and Jaroslav Černý added the others. Vion coach Juraj Jarábek was in no mood for excuses after the game. ‘Senica fully deserved to win,’ he admitted. ‘They wanted it more than us and they showed more quality.’

Trnava went into their game with Banská Bystrica with an embarrassing home record of P5 W0 D2 L3 F1 A10. At the sixth time of asking, they sent their fans home happy, thanks to Peter Čvirik’s header from a right-wing corner. Oddly enough though, the result was not enough to lift them off the bottom of the table. Still, the league is now strikingly condensed, as just seven points separate Trnava from second-placed Žilina with ten rounds of fixtures played. Such unpredictability is surely no bad thing. And let’s also hope for less action in the disciplinary committee room over coming weeks.

Slovan 5 Nitra 2

Žilina 3 Prešov 0

Trenčín 0 Ružomberok 0

Myjava 3 Košice 1

Senica 3 Zlaté Moravce 0

Trnava 1 Banská Bystrica 0

 James Baxter

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Sep 19 2012

Groundhopping: Liptovsky Mikulas v DAC

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II Liga : Tatran Liptovský Mikuláš 1 DAC Dunajská Streda 0

My Slovak groundhop has become a very leisurely progression, so much so that, when I decided to make Saturday’s trip, it was with the realisation that Liptovský Mikuláš would become my first ‘new’ ground in this country since I made it to Trnava nearly two years ago.

Being a season-ticket holder doesn’t much help of course, since it sees you stuck in the same ground (Žilina in my case) every other week. And I first ‘ticked off’ the grounds of nearby Corgoň Liga perennials – Banská Bystrica, Ružomberok and the like – not long after I moved here. Most of those I haven’t got to yet are either a long way away (Prešov and Košice) or awkward to get to (Senica and Zlaté Moravce). I’ll make the effort for them all some day, but can’t quite shake the sense that there’s still plenty of time. Then there’s the fact that, even when an opportunity to visit a new venue does present itself, I sometimes pass it up in order to return to one I’ve enjoyed in the past. Dubnica and Trenčín are two examples of Slovak grounds that have a certain endless appeal, at least for me.

Even on Saturday, if Liptovský Mikuláš had been playing Šaľa or Ružina (sides I’ve seen in the fairly recent past), I’d probably have spurned them in favour of Trenčín v Myjava, even though I saw Trenčín v Žilina just five short weeks ago.

This is why I’m not really a groundhopper, I guess. Also, as attractive as the prospect of seeing the Mikuláš ground was, I was equally interested to witness part of DAC Dunajská Streda’s II Liga campaign at first-hand. Early(ish) season contests between teams lower down the table and pacesetters tend to be quite intriguing anyway, but I was both surprised and impressed that DAC were those pacesetters.The chaos engulfing them as they bid farewell to the Corgoň Liga in May had made me think they were more likely to go out of existence than quickly hit the top of their new division.

Off-field problems do still surround DAC – they had the water cut off at their ground in July, for example – but they have been putting things right on the pitch. Mikuláš Radványi returned as coach in the summer, after a one-year absence, one or two of last season’s more competent performers have stayed on, some decent youngsters have been given a chance, and two members of Artmedia Bratislava’s 2005 Champions League squad, Branislav Obžera (also a former Slovak international) and Branislav Fodrek are giving the benefit of their experience.

The II Liga doesn’t offer many opportunities to see players who’ve performed at such lofty levels, and Obžera and Fodrek wouldn’t be with DAC now if they hadn’t had some appalling misfortune with injury over recent years. Obžera, was carried off during an August 2009 Europa League tie between Ajax Amsterdam and Slovan Bratislava (whom he’d joined a year earlier) and barely played again until this summer. Fodrek joined DAC in March and is currently in his longest injury-free spell for five years.

Both played on Saturday but neither truly stood out. Fodrek, now his team’s captain, plays in central-midfield, takes all the set-pieces and never misses an opportunity to engage the referee in discussion. He is clearly a big personality, but nothing quite came off for him against Mikuláš. As for Obžera, a winger, he was always a pantomime villain at Žilina for his perceived habit of going down easily under contact. He hasn’t lost his pace or tricks since those days, but the Mikuláš defence seemed to be well-prepared for him. In fact, the best player on the pitch was a youngster, the home side’s central midfielder Miroslav Pastva, who looks a fine prospect on this performance.

It wasn’t a great game in truth. Mikuláš went into it having scored in just one of their eight league fixtures so far, while DAC’s record of ten goals in eight games was hardly spectacular for a top of the table side. A 0-0 draw began to look distinctly likely from about the 15th minute and most present seemed to have given up hope of seeing a goal when, with 20 minutes left, Mikuláš defender Martin Kubena finished sharply after a corner had been flicked on into his path.

A first defeat for DAC then, but I don’t think Radványi will be panicking. He refused to get excited after any of his team’s early-season victories, and he knows that, at this of all clubs, there will be further difficulties, as well as successes, ahead of him. In any case, the result could also be put down partly to ‘new coach syndrome’, Mikuláš having replaced Peter Kurek with Ján Karaffa just 12 days earlier. Their players were all eagar and focused, but it wasn’t difficult to see why their ‘goals for’ column looks so sickly.

But this was supposed to be a groundhopping piece, and Smrečianska 612 is a truly beautiful venue. Liptovský Mikuláš itself is a pretty dull town but it is also the western gateway to theTatra mountainsand thus enjoys spectacular surroundings. My hope was that, once in the ground, there would be at least one vantage point from which the view wouldn’t be obscured by tower-blocks. And there was – from behind the goal at the north end, you could see straight down the pitch, and across the railway line to the peaks of the lower Tatras beyond.


The facilities were basic of course – this is the II Liga after all – but care seemed to have been taken and everything looked bright and fresh. I wish now that I hadn’t left it so long to pay a visit here. Still, if the size of Saturday’s crowd (just 350) is anything to go by, football in Liptovský Mikuláš is still a relatively undiscovered pleasure.

James Baxter

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Sep 19 2012

Corgon Liga Round-up

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Spartak Trnava should be celebrating their first win of the season. But it seems that their game at Nitra on Friday night, which they won 3-1, was not an occasion that did anyone proud. Nitra had three men sent-off, the first two somewhat harshly. The third, Seydouba Soumah, saw red for treading on Patrik Čarnota’s chest. He then attempted to punch Miroslav Karhan and seemed on the point of attacking referee Marek Mastiš, before finally leaving the field. Nitra coach Ladislav Jurkemík refused to comment afterwards beyond saying that ‘this game had nothing to do with football‘. Meanwhile, a statement by SFZ president Ján Kovačik, expressing concern at events at both Nitra and the Trenčín v Myjava match, raises questions about what may or may not have gone on. It mentions, variously, controversial refereeing decisions, unsporting behaviour, vulgarity and, most disturbingly, racism and intolerance.

There were no red cards during Trenčín’s 3-2 win over Myjava, but there is a clue to what caused Kovačik concern here in the post-match words of Myjava coach Ladislav Hudec. To take the goals first, the prolific David Depetris put Trenčín ahead, only for Matej Siva and Vladimír Kukoľ to turn things round for the visitors. Depetris equalised with ten minutes left, then had a chance to complete a hat-trick when his team were awarded a last-minute penalty. He missed, but Tomáš Malec followed up to score from the rebound. Hudec was full of praise for Trenčín, who, he said ‘were better than us in most respects’, but criticised the referee for being ‘very weak all round’. More incriminatingly, he claimed that the official had told the players he didn’t see the foul for which he awarded the penalty, but ‘knew there must have been one’.

Senica move above Myjava into tenth place following their 2-0 win away to Ružomberok. Goals from Jaroslav Diviš and the returning Juraj Piroška (a penalty) did the damage here. Ruža’s excellent start to the season suddenly looks in danger of dissolving. Their already small squad is being stretched by long suspensions for Peter Maslo and Mulumba Mukendi, and those who are eligible to play look ‘nervous’, according to coach Ladislav Šimčo.

Prešov and Košice served up a dire 0-0 draw in the eastern Slovak derby. One measure of what sort of  game this was is that the second-half didn’t produce a single incident deemed worthy of inclusion on TV highlights packages. Instead, viewers were treated to pictures of the two sets of fans engaging in intelligent debate across the segregation fence. At least neither coach tried to kid anyone into thinking that his team deserved three points. Košice’s Ján Kozák will, however, be happy to have steered his side into joint second place, level on points with Vion, Žilina and Trenčín.

After Žilina and Trnava, leaders Slovan Bratislava became the third fancied side in succession to receive a footballing lesson at Vion’s hands, losing 3-1. Andrej Hodek, Lukáš Kováč and Adam Žilák were the home side’s scorers, while Erik Grendel’s long-range effort gave Slovan short-lived hope. Slovan coach Samuel Slovák described the game as ‘interesting’ and lamented the fact that his players had helped their opponents by making individual mistakes. The crowd, 3,387, was a big one by Vion’s standards. It can’t be said often enough, though, that this is a club that deserves all the admiration going, for the way they’re run and for the football they play.

The weekend programme was completed by Banská Bystrica’s 2-2 draw at home to Žilina on Sunday evening. Bystrica were twice ahead, through Tomáš Hučka and Matúš Turňa, with Jaroslav Mihalík and Jakub Paur replying for Žilina. Paur’s goal, coming as it did in the 90th minute, will have been a particular source of frustration for Bystrica. They are just behind the group of teams contesting second place, but would be in more serious pursuit of Slovan were it not for an inability to turn home draws into wins. As for Žilina, their home game with Prešov next week is a less than attractive prospect. Dutch coach Frans Adelaar will surely settle for a first win in six games, even if there’s little ‘total football’ on display.

 James Baxter

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Sep 16 2012

Eurovision Long Contest Part 3

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Link to Part 1

Link to Part 2

How do I meld Slovakian football into this rant? How do I take up my story from the end of Part 1 and its declaration of Villarreal at home as my personal favourite Ibrox European night? How do I connect Rangers, Slovakia and a personal highlight in a life of soccer obsession? It’s frighteningly easy:

Rangers played two Slovak clubs, ever. Neither were Slovan Bratislava yet we played both our games on Slovakian soil, 46 years apart, at Tehelné pole; Both games were in the European Cup/Champions League; Vladimir Weiss The First played against Rangers in both legs in 1959, Vladimir Weiss The Second managed Rangers’ opponents in the 2005 fixture and Vladimir Weiss The Third played for Rangers; That Villarreal match at Ibrox was followed by an almost equally dramatic second leg, just as perfectly poised, and in El Madrigal I saw Rangers take the game by the scruff of the neck, score first, concede a second half equaliser, miss a sitter to seal our passage into the quarter-finals and go out on away goals; That remains the only time Rangers have ever played in the knock-out stages of the Champions League and we owed our progression to that point partly to the fact we’d drawn twice in the group stage with ARTMEDIA BRATISLAVA, the group also featuring Porto; In 1959/60 we reached the semi-finals of the old Champions’ Cup format for the only time in our existence, and in the second round we narrowly defeated Red Star Bratislava who themselves had elimintaed Porto with, as per Artmedia in 2005/06, an away win in Portugal’s second city.

The coincidences are manifold, tidy and fairly striking but the biggest link of all is that which connects TJ Cervena Hviezda Bratislava of 1959/60 with FC Artmedia Bratislava, and I’m not merely referring to the fact both have been indelibly linked with, merged with, were or are FC Petržalka: It’s that very list of the mind-numbing name-changes which connects yet has almost destroyed both Slovakian clubs to have met Rangers in the wake of their first ever national league titles. Renamings, mergers, rebirths and financial wipe-outs which result in plastic ressurections so far down the national football pyramid you fear the club’s profile will only be visible through a microscope. This, for UK punters, was what happened to Czech and Slovak clubs. But it rarely happened to British clubs and it would certainly not be something to trouble The Rangers Football Club Plc. Ah, the naivety of the me who wrote Part 1 of this rant … last December.

Of course it happens to Belgian and French clubs. It happens to clubs from all over the world - always has. Some parts of Europe are renowned for merging, inventing and destroying clubs willy-nilly. I saw Paris Saint Germain at Ibrox in one of Rangers’ better UEFA Cup runs, ten years ago. They had Ronaldinho, Nicolas Anelka and Mikel Arteta in their side. Now they’re buying Ibrahimovic and threatening European domination. Yet PSG were formed in the mid 1970s. They played in two Cup-Winners’ Cup finals and a Super Cup final in the late 1990s. So, despite Rangers having 100 years on them, PSG could soon be equalling my club’s tally of continental showpieces. Regime changes are at the heart of such fluctuations. Be it boardroom apparatchiks or spivs, the right move can have you on the cusp of greatness no matter your lack of history and the wrong one will take your entire history away from you. Rangers were once known as Scotland’s establishment club and that, as much as the kind of ropey business deals which western Europeans would love to think characterise only former communist states, has been at the heart of us becoming perhaps just another re-formed, mongrel institution. 

The Rangers time-line has been broken. A new company has taken on the history I lived and breathed as my own. There will be no “Rangers 2012″ or “FK Inter Rangers” – the resurrection and re-branding has all taken place at that ever-shady corporate level. But messing with the nomenclature of a football club can be fatal. Fulham and Fiorentina would disagree, having been brought back from the brink only to carry on as normal – or even better. But those guys play in big, money-laden, internationally-renowned leagues. Investors local and foreign will throw money at anyone with a franchise in that cash cow. Boardroom difficulties at clubs in Europe’s “Big 5″ leagues are merely an opportunity for home-grown tycoons or money-laden foreigners in need of a personal profile make-over…or a Western European passport. 

Scotland’s football infrastructure is, however, more comparable with Slovakia’s. Sponsorship is thin on the ground and flighty. If the club itself displays any instability then obscurity quickly beckons. Rangers now have more in common with Bratislava’s Red Star and Artmedia than they could ever have imagined when playing them at Ibrox and Tehelné pole. Once the regime changes begin they can be hard to stop and often result in an endemically temporary feel to everything about a club. The collective faith, once tightly contained, becomes transient. Crvena Hzievda used to be Sokol SNB Bratislava and became TJ Internacionál Slovnaft Bratislava. It got worse and now they, like the even more altered FC Petržalka 1898 are as far away from UEFA football competition as their old Glasgow sparring partners should be. In truth, Rangers admission even into the bottom tier of the Scottish League was in itself an insult to the some infinitely smaller sized but ultimately better run clubs who’ve spent years applying for membership.

My personal trip to Bratislava, recounted elsewhere on this blog, came as a result of both a fascination with the venue and a lust for football glory. That season I travelled to Porto too. Artmedia and Rangers’ other group stage opponents, Internazionale of Milan, were being punished for fan trouble and so the San Siro was closed for our trip there. But I ended up at El Madrigal for the Villarreal second leg in the knockout stages. Basically, I was going to every European tie involving Rangers which I could afford. In our run to Manchester we played a total of 19 European games – I was at 11 of them. Ever since Manchester, no away games. Four years after Manchester – no Rangers 1872.

Last season I saw Rangers lose their first Champions League qualifyer first leg to Malmo, at Ibrox and when the Swedes completed the job in Scandanavia, I saw NK Maribor of Slovenia eliminate us in the resultant Europa League qualifyer. The second leg was at Ibrox. Carlos Bocanegra, the captain of the USA, seemed an appropriate scorer of what is and may well remain the last ever goal scored by a Rangers player in European competition. On 14th November 1956, in Nice’s Stade du Ray, South African Johnny Hubbard scored Rangers’ first ever truly competitive goal on foreign soil, from the penalty spot. Here, fifty five years later, in our very own footballing Côte d’Azur, another New Worlder scrambled home what may have been Rangers’ last strike in our old world. Now I watch a team which plays in a league featuring no club which has ever competed in any of the three European competitions, far less reached a final. And that, for many, includes the Rangers of 2012.

Prague may offer more holiday options than Bratislava but, for Rangers, the results are diametrically opposed. The capital of Bohemia is the only Czech location Rangers have experienced in European competition. While the opposition within the city limits has been varied, the final outcome has been monotonously predictable. We go to Praha, lose, can’t turn it round at Ibrox and go out of Europe in the first round of the competition. Every ten years. We’ve done it once in each of the three Euro competitions. Dukla, before they felt the need to escape those city limits, destroyed us at 3-0 in the first leg of the first round of the 1981/82 European Cup-Winners’ Cup. After what was done to us at infamous old Juliske, our 2-1 home leg win was academic. On the only other two occasions on which we faced a Czech side, we kept it tighter but made it increasingly painful.

In 1991/92 we lost 1-0 at the Letna but went 2-0 up against Sparta just three minutes into extra time in the second leg. When Andy Goram, the greatest goalkeeper I have ever seen, makes a mistake to allow a fatal own goal just five minutes later, you know Prague has the sign over you. Scotland international and Rangers legend Stuart McCall scored twice at home to Sparta that night. In September 2002, all-round Euro legend Ronald de Boer’s brace seemed to have recovered the situation against Zizkov. Ales Pikl and Ludek Straceny had scored the two unanswered goals in front of a massive 3,000+ crowd at the Strahov. As per Sparta in the Champions Cup, Zizkov in the UEFA Cup were taken to Glaswegian extra-time. Almost 48,000 went wild as Neil McCann performed the old chestnut of putting us in the lead before the inevitable Prague-tastic killer of an away goal. Marcel Licka netted after 101 minutes. One of his team-mates was sent-off after 117 minutes. And in the 122nd minute, Rangers goalkeeper Stefan Klos – a Champions League winner with Borussia Dortmund – came up for a corner, got his head to it, nodded it downwards, onto the post … and out. We’ve never played Napoli in UEFA competition – for Rangers, it was always a case of “see Prague and die”.

But this is about Rangers and Slovakia: We’ll end with the Rangers-Red Star game from 1959 but the real theme of this second, infinitely more depressing part of my rant has been how the European fixation may have destroyed Rangers. The money we spent trying to out-do Celtic’s achievement of 1967 contributed to our Icarus moment. I therefore find it ironic that Artmedia reached that same 2005/06 Champions League Group as Rangers by inflicting Celtic’s most humiliating ever European defeat. Tehelné pole has hosted two games in which Rangers scored away from home and drew - matches which ultimately advanced them in Europe. But in many ways its greatest memory for Bluenoses is in hosting a lovely 5-0 thrashing of everything Rangers like to think we are not.

Back in 1959/60 Rangers’ defeat of Red Star allowed them to make the semi-finals of a European Cup edition which ended with a Hampden final. We were utterly destroyed by Eintracht in the semi (and, considering what happened to the Germans in the final, it’s perhaps better we didn’t progress to meet Puskas and Di Stefano’s Real Madrid in Mount Florida) but reached the following season’s Cup-Winners’ Cup final. Fiorentina emerged victorious over us in 1961 but becoming the first Scottish club to make a European curtain-closer and getting so close to the biggest final of all, all within the space of one season, seemed ample proof of Rangers’ role as Scotland’s greatest sporting institution. Six years later we’d have to rethink that. 

Social historians say Rangers became a focal point for Scottish protestantism after newspapers of the day lamented Celtic and Hibs’ domination of the game in the early part of the 20th century, calling for a Scottish Club to defeat “the Irish invaders”. Is that what it all came down to then? Did our desperation to show what we weren’t, above what we were, sew the seeds of our demise? The Warsaw Pact regimes plainly used football, as per all sports, to evidence their ideological and moral superiority to Western capitalist governments, yet look now at so many of the once proud clubs of the Slavic countries. Look at what a sectarian signing policy (which also “came down” in 1989) did for Rangers. Look at what Communism did for Red Star Bratislava. Both clubs more than had their moments but, ultimately, we have to regard their current situation. Rangers fans, however deluded it is, feel as blameless as any Slovakian punter was over the fate of the Artmedias and Inter Bratislavas.  What is true is that the regimes come and go but it’s the punters who’re left to suffer.

Rangers have suffered the same fate as so many of the one-time greats of former Moscow satellites. Like female competitors of 1970s and 80s Olympics undergoing sex changes in later life because of the hormone injections, being designed to win only in the name of envy has long-lasting reprecussions. Magdeburg, Carl Zeiss Jena and Lokomotive Leipzig all graced the Cup-Winners’ Cup final in the name of the DDR but far from gracing the Bundesliga since the fall of the wall, they’ve barely kept themselves operating. Financial or chemical, the doping seemed worth it at the time but now Slovakian football, like all Eastern European football, isn’t just as exotic to me as it once was - because now it also represents a warning me, my fellow Rangers fans and our club as a whole didn’t heed: You can indeed want it too much. 

But it was quite a game when Red Star were the champions of Czechoslovakia, Rangers the champs of Scotland and European competition so young it involved a whole different kind of baggage: Armstice Day 1959 is probably an appropriate date for the Glasgow side’s first truly competitive meeting with Eastern European opposition. Moscow Dynamo’s famous 1945 British tour saw 95,000 pack Ibrox for the first glimpse of a club from behind a curtain which would instantly lend its metallic name to the most famous defence in Rangers history. There was an Ibrox friendly with Dinamo Zagreb in 1957 and I’d love to tell you the Red Star tie was Rangers’ first against a side from old Czechoslovakia but no prizes for guessing which city provided the opposition for an October 1946 Ibrox friendly. Perhaps it was Sparta’s 3-1 defeat that day which inspired Prague to become the killer of all future Rangers’ European hopes. We honestly intended no offence.

Nevertheless, this European Cup clash was still very much the adventure for both sides. Red Star were playing only the second tie of their debut Euro campaign. They provided Rangers’ fifth ever opponent in what was just our third involvement in these new continental contests. UEFA competition was, basically, just four years old. Proceedings were kept political when the man they called “the Wee Prime Minister”, Ian McMillan opened the scoring after merely a minute. It wasn’t just his surname but the fact he controlled proceedings on the park like Harold of Downing Street controlled the country which gave McMillan his nickname. Amazingly for one of the greatest inside-forwards in our history, he was a part-time player – a fully qualified quantity surveyor. This perhaps explains both why he ran so little but loved the continental game so much. Unlike the ”pie and a pint” Scottish domestic game, McMillan must have felt this was one of those matches against coffee house footballers which he was about to measure, quantify and own. If I’m mixing metaphors please take it as form meeting function, because very little about this game went as McMillan or anyone else in blue expected. 

A crowd of 80,000 Scots on a November night in Govan must have seemed like a far crueller scenario than the September evening in Oporto which got Red Star into this round. However, the quickly-learned durability which saw Red Star win 2-0 in front of 60,000 Porto fans in the steamy bowl of Das Antas became almost instantly evident at Ibrox.The legendery Adolf Scherer, Vrútky’s very own, equalised within a quarter of an hour and before the stop-watch struck 30 minutes, his international team-mate Milan Dolinksy had Red Star in the lead and Govan very, very still.

I have one book which shows a picture of this clash. Just one. It’s black and white but it glows with the romance of European competition. We know how the colour was applied. Rangers were in all-blue and “Cervena Hviezda” in white shorts and socks with the red and white stripes on top making their strip as similair to their Belgrade counterparts as their Slovak name to the Serbo-Croat. In the photo there is something just visible on Adolf Scherer’s shorts as he whips a half-volley past George Niven in the Rangers goal. It could be dirt, grass, his number – or it could be a star. As I said in Part 1, it’s the difference to the Rangers strip, the difference of a foreign strip on our visitors and the glare of the floodlights which heightens the excitement. On top of those essentials, what was happening on the pitch on November 11th 1959 must have sent the punters present into a state of heightened reality. 

Somebody punched Sammy Baird. Referee Daniel Mellet remained neutral but did not do much for the notion of Swiss accuracy when he sent off Stefan Matlak instead of his Red Star team-mate. Jiří Tichý was widely reported to have got off with the offence. Reports also tell us the sending off happened in the very same minute, the 43rd, as Rangers’ equaliser from Alex Scott. The future Everton striker didn’t score from the spot so perhaps the punch was a reaction to the Rangers celebrations. Whatever the cause, the Slovak fighting spirit was proven beyond all doubt when ten-man Red Star re-took the lead in the 68th minute. Scherer again showing just why he would go on to score the goals which put Czechoslovakia into the World Cup final in Chile two years later.

I wasn’t at Ibrox for this game. I wasn’t born for another 10 years. I saw the Red Star of Yugoslavia get some sort of revenge for their Bratislavan brothers, as I stood on the same West Enclosure terracing which had been present in 1959, but that wasn’t til 1990. However, I can guarantee you the 80,000 would not have been happy. Any notions you have of Rangers responding so quickly - outside-left Davie Wilson, the latest in a line of immortal Rangers wingers, scored our second equaliser just five minutes after Red Star went 3-2 up – because of a never-say-die optimism amongs the home fans are sadly misconceived. It would have been more like a “sort this out, Gers or YOU die” atmosphere baying down from the Ibrox slopes. This ingrained impatience with failure and Red Star’s one man disadvantage finally told when another of those Rangers legends, centre-forward Jimmy Millar, scored the first leg winner (almost certainly with his head) on the stroke of full time.

Seven goals, the lead changing hands multiple times, one red card, the wrong man dismissed and goals in the first and last minute. Oh, and I forgot to mention, because reports don’t give a time, somewhere in amongst all this Eric Caldow missed a penalty. Rangers and Slovakia might not come together too often but when they do they certainly make up for lost time.

Okay, the Berlin wall wasn’t yet built but I can tell you the return leg, seven days later, was Rangers’ first time behind the “Iron Curtain”. I can confirm it was certainly our first time in Slovakia and as far east as we’d ever been in a history, at that point approaching the 90-year mark. Now, again, I’d also love to tell you the return leg was Rangers’ first time anywhere near that part of the world but we had a thing going with Viennese clubs in the Nineteen thirties. Rapid and Austria came to Ibrox, Rapid on several occasions including once in the mid-fifties. And we played Rapid Vienna in the Austrian capital too. But, while putting in literally minutes of research for this rant, Rangers historians Bob Ferrier and Robert McElroy’s gargantuan tome on everything Rangers was flicked through with forensic haste and it transpires Rangers travelled to Mitteleuropa as far back as 1904: 

There are no precise dates but we do have a list of games played “away” to foreign opponents during and/or after May of that year. It’s obviously a tour. Rangers’ initial opponets were (appropriately enough) First Vienna. I hope and trust this was at their iconic Hohe Warte ground, a stadium I visited back in 2000 with more satisfaction than I felt in walking the Ringstrasse or entering Freud’s house. Thereafter, we played two matches against a Danish side which are annotated as having being played in Vienna, and next is a fixture against Vienna SC. So I can imagine that the next two matches, also “away”, against foreign opponents, were also part of the same tour and almost definitely played in Vienna. Like I say, I’d love to tell you it was against a Bratislavan side – especially as the two cities are so proximitous – but, well, you probably know before I even say it: Our second last match of that Viennese tour was against a select side from, erm, Prague. We then beat “FK Prague” 5-0.  The Prague select was defeated 6-1. So there you have it. The root of Prague’s future determination to punt Rangers out of Europe at every turn, no matter the club we faced: The Ibrox club had, in the summer of 1904, inflicted humiliation on at least one player from EVERY club in the capital of Bohemia. What goes around …

And what went around at Ibrox in November 1959, came around at Tehelné pole in November 1959.  Local accomodation, food and transport was all made or found to be difficult for Rangers. The cold war heat was full on (of course this kind of thing never happened to British clubs when in Spain, Italy or Greece). Red Star moved the game to the biggest venue in the city and 60,000 saw Jimmy Millar do what he was want to do. With Alex Scott having capped a controlled, classy away performance by netting a breakaway move in the 69th minute, Jimmy had one last thing to sort out. He was famed for settling scores when the time was right. With ten minutes to go and the tie seemingly in the bag, Rangers powerfully built centre forward went looking for Jiří Tichý and avenged the first leg assault of Sammy Baird. Another Swiss ref, Josef Gulde, did like his compatriot in the first leg and produced a Red card for the away team. But Red Star, as we know, were made of stern stuff and while a punch from Millar usually saw the end of his opponent’s involvement, Tichý showed the fortitude which would see him too into that 1962 World Cup final in Santiago. He scored with a minute to go. It seemed only fair, after such an epic tie, that Red Star didn’t lose on the night and Rangers gained their first ever away draw in European competition in the process.

The crowd was a tenth of the size in 2005 when we drew again on the same pitch, this time with Artmedia. And the reaction of the Rangers fans that night contained 1/100th of the positivity that would have been felt back in Scotland 46 years previously. We thought we’d blown our chances of Champions League progress when we had a similairly stern tussle with Artmedia but I stood amongst the seats of “Tribuna” section CHS, off Bajkalska Ulica, knowing I was privileged to be amongst the first (now possibly the last) Rangers support ever to enter that great ground in that great city. There would have been no away fans in 1959. Just as there was no “Rad XXV” or “Sedadlo 234″ as my 500 Sk ticket promised – just a lot of unmarked light blue seats slapped down on the same terracing which had witnessed Millar and Tichý getting into it and Red Star and Rangers trading blows of raw football excitement. Our manager in 2005, Alex McLeish would have to leave to sate the Ibrox boo-boys despite creating history that season, just as our gaffer in 1959, Scot Symon, would eventually be sacked in disgustingly shoddy fashion simply because Celtic had won the 1967 European Cup. Karol Borhy and then Valdimir Weiss may have thought their Glasgow counterpart had won the battle, but they ended up victims of Rangers’ losing war with their fans’ impatience. 

Red Star would go on to win the Mitropa Cup in 1969, under a different name. Rangers would win their European title in 1972. Jiří Tichý would eventually win three league titles … with Sparta Prague. And in the next round of the 1959/60 European Cup Rangers would defeatSparta … ofRotterdam. Two of those small Scottish clubs who deserved SFL membership before Glasgow Rangers? Cove RANGERS and, from Edinburgh, SPARTANS! Oh well - maybe there are some bonuses to being a Third Division, fourth tier, brand-new incarnation of an old club: Even if the money being thrown at the newco Rangers means they’ll probably win a domestic cup sometime soon, June’s liquidation means it’ll be at least three years before we’re allowed back into UEFA competition. Which guarantees at least three years before we ever have to go back to bloodyPrague. Keep yer ”Karluv most” and “Staromestske namesti”  – give me Tehelné pole any day of the week.

Rangers and Bratislava might be liked by incompetent football ownership but we are also united by great players, great managers and memories of visceral nights of continental glamour. No regime can ever take that away from us.

 Alex Anderson

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Sep 13 2012

Slovakia’s Start to 2014 World Cup Qualifying Campaign

Published by under International

Lithuania 1 Slovakia 1 (Vilnius)

Slovakia 2 Liechtenstein 0 (Pasienky, Bratislava)

Not the six points Slovakia wanted from these two games, and not the most convincing performances either.

The Lithuania game can be divided into three quite distinct phases. First, there was the opening 25 minutes, where the Slovaks were slow and careless, allowing Lithuaniato take almost complete control. Ján Mucha’s error which resulted in the home side’s 14th minute goal was symptomatic of the whole team’s start to the encounter. The goalkeeper was too late  making up his mind to come off his line to claim a long free-kick, and was thus comprehensively outjumped by the scorer, Marius Žaliukas.

In the middle third, by contrast, Slovakiamade Lithuanialook very ordinary. Marek Bakoš had a goal wrongly disallowed for offside (he was a good yard in front of the last defender as Marek Hamšík played the perfect through ball to him). Then, just before half-time, Marek Sapara found the net with an effort not even these officials could find anything wrong with. The second-half began with Slovakia still on top, but they were set back on their heels by Viktor Pečovský’s 60th minute red card. I’m bound to say this I know, but the Žilina midfielder was desperately unlucky ; he slipped on the artificial turf as he moved into make a challenge and couldn’t help going to ground right in his opponent’s path. Even if the referee couldn’t see this, the foul was never worthy of a sending-off, especially considering that Radoslav Zabavník had earlier gone unpunished for a wild hack at a Lithuanian’s shins, and the home left-back wasn’t carded for a two-footed lunge at Michal Ďuriš.

The last half-hour was a cagey affair. Sapara andHamšík,Slovakia’s best players on the night, began to limit their forays forward from midfield, and Miroslav Stoch was withdrawn in favour of the more defensive-minded Michal Breznaník. For their part, Lithuania didn’t look dangerous until a late flurry of pressure in injury-time. Still, the draw will only begin to look like an acceptable result forSlovakiaifBosniaandGreecealso start to drop points in games they should win. At present, that looks like quite an ‘if’.

The Liechtenstein game saw Stanislav Griga and Michal Hipp make four enforced changes. Mucha withdrew from the squad afterLithuania, saying he didn’t want to give the coaches the dilemma of whether or not to stick with him. Dušan Kuciak took his place. Tomáš Hubočan had some ‘muscle tightness‘ so Kornel Saláta partnered Matin Škrtel in defence, Ľubomír Guldan replaced Pečovský and Vladimír Weiss Junior took over from broken-toe victim Ďuriš.

Liechtenstein were, as anyone would have predicted, desperately short of both quality and ambition. Their approach to the game was perhaps understandable in the light of their 1-8 loss to Bosnia four days earlier but, coupled with Slovakia’s now familiar struggles in front of goal, it made for painful viewing.

Bakoš was again unlucky early on, having two decent efforts well-saved. Once Liechtenstein had got through the opening 15 minutes or so, they began to look more assured and the Slovaks more anxious. Five minutes before half-time, though, the jeers of the scattered 4,000 inside Pasienky were silenced when Weiss got to the bye-line and pulled back the perfect pass for Sapara. His first shot was saved but, despite being off-balance, he skillfully steered home the rebound. Seconds later, Hamšík thumped a header against the crossbar.Slovakia’s second-half display put one in mind of a sleeping dog which wakes occasionally to bark before putting its head down again.Liechtenstein, meanwhile, seemed perfectly content to keep the score at 1-0. The home side finally sealed the points ten minutes from time when Hamšík’s through ball found Stoch. His chip had the ‘keeper beaten and the ball was just crossing the line when Martin Jakubko followed up to make sure. Stoch clearly wanted this goal, at least if the look on his face when Jakubko was announced as the scorer is anything to go by.

With all due respect, individual players can’t really be judged on a performance againstLiechtenstein. Certainly, Kuciak, Saláta, and even Guldan (who concentrated on doing the simple things just in front of the defence) were largely untroubled, Weiss and Stoch were lively at times but frustrating at others, while Bakoš really really needs a goal. If it’s not goalkeepers denying him, it’s the woodwork or referees. Hamšík was excellent again, though. His recent international form has totally changed my perception of him and I really can see now why ridiculous sums of money are sometimes mentioned in connection with his name.

Hamšík’s thoughts on the latest Pasienky experience are not on record but Weiss is not hiding his feelings. Here, translated word for word, is what he said after the Liechtenstein game :

‘It’s embarrassing that so few people came to an international game and that half of them jeered us. We players are fine, we look after each other. People have to realise that we are playing for them. We need them to encourage us, not whistle us from the third minute.

Sometimes, there are games where opponents come to defend, but that’s no reason for people to behave like that and have a go at us. They have very quickly forgotten what we did two years ago when we got to South Africa.’

He is right of course, but I wonder how different things will be when he and his team-mates are back at this ground in October. The Latvia and Greece games will be hard, yet, given the dropped points in Lithuania, Slovakia need at least a win and a draw from them. That would be more achievable with the kind of togetherness between players and fans that Pasienky is so inconducive to.

 James Baxter

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Sep 12 2012

Eurovision Long Contest Part 2

Published by under Pohar

And, of course, it transpires there’s another way for Rangers to grab headlines all across Europe: Go into financial meltdown and be forced to begin life all over again as a fourth tier club. Just seven weeks after the Britski Belasi boys did me the solid of posting the first part of my European yarn on their cosmopolitan blog – less than two months on from my heart-felt assertion that Rangers’ only true environment, for me, was continental competition – my club went into administration and began a footballing adventure with a far blacker conclusion than any away goals exit to Viktoria Zizkov or Sparta Praha. Liquidation was confirmed in June and while there’s every reason to say the current incarnation is a brand new Rangers, different from the club founded in 1872, what’s beyond doubt is that their only true environment is the one in which they presently find themselves: The Scottish Football League Third Division.

This isn’t a tale or a fate unbeknown to followers of Slavic football. I still find myself trawling the internet for the historical whereabouts of the Red Star and the Inter of Bratislava. But while the first part of this particular tale of mine lamented Rangers’ inability to realise the scale of their infrastructure on the European stage, there can be no doubt their fiscal disintegration has created a Scottish football story as globally famous as Celtic’s European Cup win of 1967. Juventus and River Plate, clubs which have scaled greater heights than Rangers, may have suffered recent relegations but, like Manchester United and Liverpool back in the day, the second tier was as far as they sunk. Fiorentina and Lokomotive Leipzig’s bankruptcies saw European finalists crashing and burning into the netherworld of their domestic lower leagues, yes, but neither of these famous institutions could claim a 140-year history or boast of having won their own national title more than any club on the planet, ever. 

So you’ll forgive me for taking so long to offer a continuation to Eurovision Long Contest – it’s been a devestating seven months, on so many levels, since last we spoke. And I’ll forgive you a titter at the irony of Part 1, in which this Bluenose of 35 years declared Rangers must do better in UEFA competition, and now sees them banned from it for three years and unable to qualify for the Champions League for at least four. I wanted Rangers to raise their profile on the continent and, whaddayaknow, it’s even higher now than when our nutter fringe was rioting through Manchester in 2008. That very desire on my part, that lust for European silver, was at the heart of Rangers’ liquidation. The sick irony continues into the fact that the financial disintegration occurred with me having finally witnessed the minimum I needed from Rangers on the international stage. The natural conclusion to Part 1′s narrative of personal ambition for my club was that we did indeed reach a European final. The UEFA Cup showpiece, against Zenit St Petersburg on 14th May 2008, at what was then the City of Manchester Stadium, was a highlight of my life and potentially The highlight of my football life. The aforementioned rioting put a serious dampner on it, and losing the match itself didn’t help, but it was almost the very moment for which Jagger and Richards coined “You can’t always get what you want …”

David Murray was the Rangers owner who, for me, tried more than sometimes. He tried, so very hard, all the time. Three and a half decades in the Rangers trenches had made me ultra aware of what my hopes and ambitions were for my club. I wanted us to win the European Cup, the Champions League. Hey - if the Rangers of 2012 is the same club then I still do. But what I needed, what I truly needed to see before I died, was us simply reaching a European final. I just had to see Rangers walk down a neutral tunnel, past a big UEFA trophy and onto a pristine pitch being watched by every armchair anorak on the continent. Against Zenit St Petersburg, we did just that and in the few years immediately after that final I thought I could die happy. Instead, Rangers died. Parents should never bury their children – fans should never out-live their club. But when there’s murder afoot the natural order is affronted. 

David Murray’s constant great endeavour of the last 23 years received little or no praise from the Rangers support, the loudest and most critical of whom had mostly been attracted to the club by his late 80s and early 90s work. In a final effort to give us EVERYTHING we wanted, he applied a tax avoidance system which Revenue and Customs called tax evasion. At the time of writing the matter is still in dispute but the potentail ramifications gave the Ibrox ingrates, the Murray-haters all the ammunition they needed.  He was forced to sell. He had no reason not to. A new owner called Whyte was welcomed with open arms by those who didn’t know or never appreciated what they had in Murray and within months Whyte, an asset stripper, had driven one of Europe’s most famous clubs into the ground.

Reaching that UEFA Cup Final took the edge off my European obsession. Losing Rangers has taken the edge off my love of football. For now at least. An instinct which kicked in when I was seven won’t ever disappear. But nothing makes you realise how much of a trickle-down effect your club has on your passion for all soccer than the loss of that very club. It’s been a crystalization where the crystal cuts deep. I’m too busy stemming the internal bleeding, too deeply immersed in the innards of Rangers, trapped in the present day car crash of Scottish football, to properly re-engage with what now seems like an innocent, almost naive fixation on the pan-European.  But this is merely an exacerbation of the disadvantage I was already at when I scrawled Part 1. 

Even if Rangers had remained financially stable since December 2011, even if we were still flying as high as it’s possible to fly in the SPL,  I’d still be scrambling to recount fast-fading memories of emotional responses to European sides. When trying to describe a thirst, there’s nothing worse than supping a big cool glass of water. Manchester, Zenit and the penalties semi-final victory over Fiorentina which got us there, just quench, quench, quenched. To properly recount how my tale relates to, or even just includes Czech and Slovak clubs, I would have been better to tell it before 14th May 2008.

The first European club final I watched after applauding both Zenit and Rangers around the City of Manchester Stadium in fact featured Manchester United, and Chelsea. So I thought the slight decrease in interest I felt when watching this game on TV was down to the Match of the Day familiarity of the fixture. Even if it was being played in Moscow this was an all-English game. I’d attended plenty of those over the years, journeying south from Glasgow to add some reality to the Anglo TV pictures we’d been receiving north of Hadrian’s Wall for decades. English games are touristic for me in a British sense but seem far too run-of-the-mill, too domestic, to constitute a truly exciting European final. And perhaps the Champions League final of 2008, coming just a week after the biggest match of my life, was always bound to pale in my personal emotional slipstream.

But when back on the sofa for the following season’s UEFA Cup final - and it doesn’t get more polyglot than Shakhtar Donetsk and Werder Bremen trading Bazilian goals on the Asian side of the Bosphorous - the full impact of Rangers-Zenit 2008 kicked in: A personal catharsis was suddenly apparent. I realised that my preoccupation with European club finals – memorising every winner and runner-up of all three competitions since they began in the mid-fifties, maintaining a vast video collection of each season’s finals since the early 90s, and trying to see all 101 European finalists in the flesh – had been as fuelled by Rangers’ inability to reach one of these ultimate glamour matches since I was out of nappies as it was by my natural xenophilia. 

I was so deeply absorbed in the history of European competition because I so deeply wanted Rangers to be making that very kind of history again. When your club keeps missing out on European finals during your lifetime yet has reached those finals several times in the past, when your main rival in domestic competition and greatest foe on earth has won the biggest European trophy of them all but your club hasn’t, and when your domestic league forces you to play the same teams four times a season for over 30 years, you will cling to all that is foreign, different, adventurous and just downright full of exponential possiblity: You will be consumed by the avenues available for proper glory, for genuinely new heights; Your imagination goes to what could happen in the future to break up the monotonous aspects of the past and present. I fixated on one particular goal for my club - and eventually, like the narrative arc of a chivalric romance, I got that Rangers European final – but for the 30 years I supported Rangers prior to Manchester, most seasons resulted in continetal disappointment, and absolutely no finals. So, by way of psychological compensation, I would continually gaze into two worlds experienced only by others: 

Firstly, I would eat up all the stats on European club football history and watch the finals of all three, then both competitions each season, like they were some kind of soccer porn. Secondly, sticking with fantasy, I’d imagine what it must have been like to be a Rangers fan of the previous generation, when our club made three finals in 11 years (four if you want to throw in the Super Cup, which Rangers inadvertantly invented to compensate for our European ban of 1972/73 and mark our centenary season, by inviting European Cup-holders Ajax for a home-and-away gig). So I’d ask my uncle about it. He’d tell me about the greatest Ibrox atmosphere of his life, against Torino in the quarter-final of that riotously triumphant 71/72 Cup-Winners’ Cup campaign. Our window cleaner, a doyen of the local Rangers Supporters Association, was older still and he recalled many Rangers fans actually being pleased for Celtic in 1967, sure that if our historically inferior derby rivals could lift the European Cup, Rangers would soon follow suit.

My dad recounted the apocryphal tale of England’s World Cup-winning captain Bobby Moore, coming off the pitch at Wembley in 1967 having just lost to Scotland and remarking to John Greig of Rangers and Bobby Lennox of Celtic, “Oh well, lads – at least that’s another season over”, to which the Old Firm duo replied, “Not for us, Bobby - we’ve still got the European Cup and Cup Winners’-Cup finals to play”. I’d scour any football book for pictures and tales of Rangers inEurope in the sixties and early 70s – and Red Star Bratislava featured in a way I never realised would become so painfully apt. 

Alex Anderson

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Sep 06 2012

Previewing Slovakia’s World Cup Qualifiers

Published by under International

11 months after they last saw competitive action, Slovakia face two World Cup qualifiers in four days over the coming week, away to Lithuania (in Vilnius) on Friday and at home to Lichtenstein next Tuesday. Given the nature of Group G – it looks like one of those where any team is capable of beating any other – you feel the Slovaks really need maximum points from these games. Yet if they do achieve that, there’ll be a definite feeling of ‘job well done’, whatever the scorelines. In fact, recalling the toil and trauma of the Euro 2012 campaign, I’d say that two 1-0 wins would do very nicely indeed.

I think we can safely say that whatever team Stanislav Griga and Michal Hipp send out for these games, it will be in a formation closely resembling 4-2-3-1. Unlike Vladimír Weiss, who could be quite an experimenter in friendlies, the joint coaches have not varied their tactics much in their short time in charge. On the other hand, they have tried out several players, so it is difficult to make a good guess at Friday’s (let alone Tuesday’s) starting XI. I’ll run through some of the possibilities below :

Ján Mucha looks to be re-established as the first choice goalkeeper, the more so since he’s actually seen some first-team action at Everton recently. But the fact that he keptSlovakiain the game with some fine first-half saves againstDenmarklast month may mean more to Griga and Hipp than a Carling Cup clean sheet against Leyton Orient.

There is little doubt too about the centre-back positions, where Martin Škrtel and Tomáš Hubočan are the best pair available toSlovakia. The former is the new team-captain and is naturally right-sided, the latter is perfectly happy on the left. There may be minor concerns over Škrtel’s Liverpool form but he has long been one of the national team’s classiest performers. He even has the advantage of having recently played against two members of the Lithuanian side, the Hearts pair of Marius Žaliukas and Arvydas Novikovas.

Things are more complicated at full-back. Right-back Peter Pekarík was unconvincing against the Danes and has recently been undergoing upheavals at club level, returning to Wolfsburg from a loan spell in Turkey with Kayserispor, then being sold to Hertha Berlin. He may need a rest, in which case I would replace him with the versatile, experienced Mainz player Radoslav Zabavník. By contrast, Slovan Bratislava’s Lukáš Pauschek had a promising debut on the left against the Danes and deserves another chance, though the fit again Marek Čech is also an option.

The deep midfield roles see even more players vying for places. For me, Marek Sapara simply has to start. He is the best passer of the ball in the squad in terms of both range and accuracy and looked back to his best in Denmark after a long injury lay-off. Alongside him, I would have Žilina’s Viktor Pečovský. One reason for this – it must be admitted – is pure favouritism. I love watching Pečovský in the Corgoň Liga, where what usually seems to happen is that the opposition pass the ball to him and he passes it to the nearest team-mate. It won’t look quite so easy at international level, but I’d still say Pečovský is the man with the positional discipline and the defensive instinct to best watch Sapara’s back. Juraj Kucka, Karím Guédé and Ľubomír Guldan are the other alternatives. The latter two are both deserving of an opportunity but Kucka’s clumsy, indisciplined showing in Denmark means he would be very fortunate to start in Vilnius.

The attacking midfield trio looks a little clearer-cut. Miroslav Stoch, Marek Hamšík and Vladimír Weiss Junior are all young, talented and used to each other’s games. Stoch and Hamšík seem to get better and better and are definite selections. Weiss is the one with something still to prove. For all his skill, he remains frustratingly inconsistent and prone to taking wrong options. He should, and probably will, start on Friday but if he becomes infuriating, as he did in Denmark, Plzeň’s Michal Ďuriš would be a decent replacement. Michal Breznaník of Slovan Liberec is another good attacking midfielder, especially down the left.

Griga and Hipp have only picked two out-and-out strikers. The fact that they have similar styles of play makes it more likely still that only one will start in Lithuania. Marek Bakoš, another Plzeň player, has scored plenty of goals for his club in European football, most recently the winner against Lokeren which took them to the Europa League group stage. In his four Slovakia appearances to date, however, he has been hard-working but rarely looked like finding the net. Martin Jakubko, the other striker, came out of international retirement for the Denmark game, came on as a substitute and scored with his first touch of the ball. Like Bakoš, he is good with his back to goal, though he tends to rely more on an imposing physique and a little less on touch than the Plzeň man.

The ground in Vilnius has an artificial pitch, which might give Bakoš a slight edge over Jakubko, though the latter is used to such surfaces from Russia (he plays for Amkar Perm). The pitch is another good reason to opt for the likes of Sapara and Pečovský and may also be to the liking of Stoch, Hamšík and Weiss. We must then hope that Pasienky is in at least a reasonable condition for the Lichtenstein game….

My starting XI for Lithuania (and if they play well, they can stay in for Lichtenstein) :

Mucha (Everton) – Zabavník (Mainz), Škrtel (Liverpool), Hubočan (Zenit St Petersburg), Pauschek (Slovan Bratislava) – Pečovský (Žilina), Sapara (Trabzonspor) – Weiss (Pescara), Hamšík (Napoli), Stoch (Fenerbache) – Bakoš (Plzeň)  

James Baxter

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Sep 03 2012

Slovan Increase Corgon Liga lead

Published by under Domestic

Another narrow win, another increase in Slovan Bratislava’s lead at the top of the Corgoň Liga. On Saturday, Ružomberok were the unfortunate visitors to Pasienky. ‘Unfortunate’ is the key word here because Ruža created, and missed, a succession of fine chances. Slovan took an early lead when Filip Šebo, who these days seems to set up as many goals as he scores, escaped down the right and crossed for Marko Milinković to convert from close-range. On 49 minutes, Oliver Práznovský headed a long overdue equaliser from Mário Almaský’s centre. But 20 minutes later, after more Ruža misses, Slovan’s Juraj Halenár showed how to finish, rattling home from a tight angle after being set up by Jiří Kladrubský’s pass.

Ladislav Šimčo, the Ruža coach, was incredulous after the game. ‘You don’t often see as many chances as that created against Slovan,’ he said, ‘and I’ve never seen us create so many in one game.’ His opposite number, Samuel Slovák, was typically honest in his assessment, admitting that ‘Ružomberok played very well and we needed a lot of luck’. Still, Slovan would appear to have the league’s best squad, and they now have a four-point cushion over their nearest rivals. If and when they start producing 90-minute performances, they could well run away with this season’s title. Sadly, the crowd of just 1,492 suggests that the Bratislava public will take a little more convincing.

Referee Richard Trutz had a busy afternoon at the Žilina v Nitra game. The five yellow cards he waved at Nitra players were rather less significant than the red shown to Žilina defender Jozef Piaček after 43 minutes. Piaček had wrestled Arnold Šimonek to the ground inside the penalty-area and, as he made for the dressing-room, Vratislav Gajdoš put Nitra ahead from the spot. The second-half hinged on two key incidents halfway through. First,Nitra’s Seydouba Soumah went on a Messi-esque slalom through the Žilina defence. His first effort was blocked by ‘keeper Martin Dúbravka who then somehow scrambled to his feet to tip Soumah’s header from the rebound over the bar. Play then switched to the other end, where Vladimír Leitner, who’d come on as a half-time sub to fill the gap left by Piaček, smashed home the equaliser from20 yards. One thing’s for sure ; there are few better 38-year-old goalscoring defenders around than Leitner. As for Trutz, he ought to have one or two questions to answer. Not about his handling of the game (most of his decisions were correct, including the sending-off) but about the fact that he allowed it to kick-off a full three minutes early.

Košice drew level on points with Žilina courtesy of a 1-0 home win over Banská Bystrica. The only goal arrived on the half-hour when Uroš Matič swung in a free-kick and Juraj Hovančík headed home. After the game, both coaches agreed that Košice had controlled the first-half, with Bystrica dominating the second. It was noticeable, however, that Bystrica never really troubled Darko Tofiloski in the home goal. Their scoring record, currently standing at seven from their eight matches, needs to improve if they are to challenge in the league’s top half. As for Košice, their perfect home record is stimulating a little local interest. 1,730, the crowd for the Bystrica game, is hardly a brilliant turnout but is a definite improvement on the sub-1,000 attendances they regularly recorded last season.

Followers of Spartak Myjava will also be growing in optimism after Saturday’s 2-0 win against visitors Prešov. Myjava were the better side throughout, but needed the 60th minute introduction of Michal Dian to add incisiveness to their superiority. Three minutes after coming on, he supplied the cross from which Peter Sládek broke the deadlock. Ten minutes later, the substitute himself curled home a left-footed shot from just outside the penalty area. Myjava coach Ladislav Hudec later commented on the post-match celebrations among the home fans. He can surely count on more good backing in two weeks time, when his team make the short trip to Trenčín. As for Prešov, their performance was insipid, but at least they can now put concerns over their away form to one side as their next fixture is also a local derby – at home to Košice.

The Senica v Trenčín game was largely a tale of two of the Corgoň Liga’s best goalscorers. After 74 minutes, Trenčín’s David Depetris, having been fouled in the box, made it double figures for the season from the penalty-spot. Almost immediately, though, Pavol Masaryk, scorer of 20 goals for Ružomberok in 2011/2012, rescued a point for Senica. The game then finished on a bad-tempered note as Senica’s Adam Varadi was sent off. The consensus between the coaches afterwards was that Trenčín had played the better football, further evidence, perhaps, that Senica are still struggling to cope with the changes to coaching and playing personnel that took place at the club over the summer.

Trnava’s hopes that successive draws at Žilina and Ružomberok might herald an upturn in their fortunes were dashed in emphatic fashion when they were thrashed 5-0 at home by Vion Zlaté Moravce in the Sunday fixture. Andrej Hodek scored a hat-trick for Vion, with Michal Škvarka and Lukáš Mihalík adding the other goals. The game was watched by a crowd of 3,912, easily the best of the weekend, but the Trnava public will not stand for results like this. Indeed, it is now difficult to see coach Pavel Hoftych holding onto his job. While Trnava are three points adrift at the bottom of the league, Vion are getting over a difficult start to the season and are reacquainting themselves with the calm surroundings of mid-table.

Slovan 2 Ružomberok 1

Žilina 1 Nitra 1

Košice 1 Banská Bystrica 0

Myjava 2 Prešov 0

Senica 1 Trenčín 1

Trnava 0 Zlaté Moravce 5

James Baxter 






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