Sep 06 2012

Previewing Slovakia’s World Cup Qualifiers

Published by at 11:29 am 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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