Archive for December, 2012

Dec 17 2012

Slovakia Review of 2012

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Domestic and European seasons do not, of course, correspond with calendar years. So we have examples of sides doing well in spring 2012 only to disappoint in the autumn (Žilina, Trnava) or vice versa (Slovan, Košice).  Clubs who will look back upon the year as a whole with satisfaction include Trenčín and Senica. The former have adapted well to the loss of key attacking players over the summer, the former to a change of coach. Myjava, last season’s II Liga champions, would be reviewing the year with unmitigated delight, had it not been for the last four games. Prešov and Banská Bystrica, meanwhile, will just be happy to wave 2012 goodbye.

European club football did not bring Slovakia much joy in 2012. The country’s four representatives were all out of contention for group stage places by mid-August. It wasn’t a case of poor performances as much as narrowly failing to get the edge in tight contests, as with Žilina and Slovan, or, in the cases of Trnava and Senica, coming up against teams with that bit more quality.

TheSlovakianational team has had an eventful, yet inconclusive, 12 months. First, coach Vladimír Weiss departed in January. The SFZ then set off on a bungled pursuit of the man they wanted to replace him – Plzeň‘s Pavel Vrba. Meanwhile, Weiss’s assistant Michal Hipp oversaw one game as caretaker coach, a 2-1 friendly win in Turkey. This appeared to persuade the SFZ that he should be given an enhanced role in the new set-up. In April, when it had finally become clear that Vrba was unavailable, Hipp was duly appointed joint-coach, together with Stanislav Griga.

Griga and Hipp have experienced mixed results. Seven points from four World Cup qualifying games is at least one point fewer than they would reasonably have hoped for by this stage. Yet the one defeat in Group G, at home toGreece, came in spite of the team’s best performance since the win overItalyin the 2010 finals. The international year ended on a decidedly bad note, though, as the joint-coaches declared that there were ‘absolutely no positives’ to draw from a 3-0 friendly loss to neighbours theCzech Republic.

The coaches should be given credit for introducing new players who might well have been ignored had Weiss remained in charge. Some, notably Michal Breznaník and Viktor Pečovský, have been definite successes. The recall of Martin Jakubko, who had retired after the 2010 World Cup, was also a good move, though its effects were sadly scuppered by the broken jaw the striker sustained prior to the Latvia and Greece games. Griga and Hipp know better than anyone that their problems lie in the team’s inability to score goals. Plzeň forward Marek Bakoš, another player given his first opportunity since Weiss’s exit, has not yet proved to be the answer.

Off the field, there has been the usual talk of stadiums, and ofSlovakia’s best club sides joining their Czech counterparts in a combined top division. While the new national stadium remains a distant dream, Trnava and Senica are seemingly committed to starting redevelopment on their grounds in February 2013. Such developments are essential at more clubs if the Czech-Slovak league is to happen, since the Czechs now have strict ground-grading criteria.

So what has been good in Slovak football in 2012? The Žilina v Trnava title-decider in April, watched by 8,000+, was certainly the kind of occasion we could do with more of. And some ofSlovakia’s performances (againstGreece, inTurkey, the second-half of August’s friendly inDenmark) were reminders of how good the team can be. But, for me at least, 2012 saved its best till last. Ružomberok’s 2-2 draw with Slovan in the final round of autumn fixtures was as good a game as I’ve ever seen inSlovakia. The ingredients were all there ; a home side committed to making the best of its limited resources against more talented, experienced visitors, four superb goals, some great saves, a referee happy to let the game flow. There was even that rare thing in this country – a bit of atmosphere in the stands. Šport rightly awarded six stars out of six.

As for negatives, well, the balls-up the SFZ made of trying to recruit Vrba was exasperating, if not surprising. There were also some unpleasant off-field incidents, notably Slovan fans racially abusing Žilina’s black players at April’s league fixture and Trnava hooligans attacking their club’s team-coach as it returned from a Friday night defeat at Košice in October. The Seydouba Soumah saga takes the ‘prize’ here, however, largely because of the unresolved issues which still surround it. Foremost among these is the question of whether or not Soumah was, as he claimed, subjected to racial taunts from Trnava players prior to his sending-off. More on the Soumah story (it’s a complicated one) can be read at the link below :

 Followers of Slovak football learn not to get too optimistic, so my hopes for 2013 are, I think, suitably modest. Firstly, I hope Trnava and Senica do what they say they’re going to do and proceed with their stadium plans. Secondly, I’d like to see at least one of the six teams behind Slovan in the league give the leaders a real title contest in spring. Better results in European club competition would be nice. And I wish Griga and Hipp the very best in their quest to find what Griga calls a goalscoring ‘shark’. If they succeed, World Cup qualification might not be entirely out of the question.

 James Baxter

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Dec 09 2012

Corgon Liga Autumn Summary

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The story of the autumn in the Corgoň Liga has been of Slovan Bratislava gradually asserting themselves and taking a six-point lead at the top of the table, of the six clubs below them (separated by just two points) failing to find enough consistency to mount a sterner challenge, and of a spectacular, yet mysterious, loss of form at Spartak Trnava, the club I thought might well win the league!

Slovan didn’t start the season terribly well. Defeat at Košice in the second game, and a draw at home to Žilina in the third, led to coach Vladimír Weiss saying ‘enough is enough’ and walking out. But Samuel Slovák took over in time to lead the side to a 1-0 win at Trnava, since when he has gradually shaped it according to his vision. He has a fine array of creative talent at his disposal, notably Erik Grendel, Juraj Halenár and Marko Milinković, and has deployed them effectively. Equally importantly, the fleet-footed Lester Peltier, who made an uncertain start after his summer move from Trenčín, has adapted to life in the capital and is doing a decent job as the lone striker.

Other sides with title aspirations will draw encouragement from Slovan’s occasional vulnerability in defence and from the fact that, just now and then (as in defeats at Vion Zlaté Moravce and at home to Trnava), the whole team can get stuck in first gear. There may also be hope that one or two significant departures could weaken the squad, though, as yet, the talk has been more of strengthening. Overall, it is difficult at this stage to imagine Slovan not finishing the season as champions.

Of the six pursuing teams, Vion, Košice and Ružomberok can all be delighted with their efforts. Vion are a small-town club who continue to evolve under the excellent coaching of Juraj Jarábek. They will now hope not to fall away the way they did last spring. Košice are making a mockery of last season’s relegation battle and, with 23 points from a possible 27, have the league’s best home record. As for Ružomberok, they were many people’s tip for relegation following a summer of financial upheaval that left them without a reserve team, but have performed above all expectations.

Trenčín too have done well, especially considering the summer sales of Peltier and Filip Hlohovský to Slovan. They are still as exciting to watch as any team in the league, but will feel they have dropped a few too many points on their own artificial pitch. Senica would be closer to Slovan if it hadn’t been for a poor start to the season, while Žilina, in fast-tracking several teenagers into their first-team, seem to be concentrating more on the long-term future than on winning the title this time around.   

There are six more points between Ružomberok, the lowest placed of the above six sides, and Prešov, who occupy eighth place. The easterners will feel they made a good move in sacking unpopular Bulgarian coach Angel Červenkov before the penultimate autumn fixture, since his replacement, Ladislav Totkovič, then led the side to two successive victories.

Two points hehind Prešov, Myjava and Banská Bystrica are separated from each other by goal-difference. League newcomers Myjava were enjoying themselves at the top level until a run of just one point from their last four games raised renewed questions over whether they will continue to hold their own. Bystrica, with their inability to convert possession into goals, are perhaps the most frustrating side in the league but, a bit like Žilina, they could cite their determination to give their young players a chance (they regularly supply several members of Slovakia’s Under-21 squad) as one reason for that.

Second-from-bottomNitrahad a dreadful time following their 3-1 home loss to Trnava in mid-September. Seydouba Soumah, their best player, was banned for six months, the club’s main shareholders resigned and the team picked up just two points from the next eight matches. Coach Ladislav Jurkemík was then sacked. His replacement, Jozef Vukušič, has stopped the free-fall, leading his charges to victories in the last two home matches. There is still hope for Nitra, but it must be remembered that a 3-point deduction, yet another punishment imposed after that fateful Trnava game, will come into effect at the end of the season.

Trnava might have won at Nitra and Slovan, but their autumn has otherwise been an unmitigated failure. Among their more embarrassing results have been 3-0 and 6-0 hammerings by Trenčín and a 5-0 home drubbing by Vion. Pavel Hoftych hung on longer than expected as coach, but was finally moved ‘upstairs’ before the autumn’s final two fixtures, to be replaced on the bench by Peter Zelenský. In different circumstances, Trnava would be eagarly anticipating the start of redevelopment work on their ground, Štadión Antona Maletinského. As it is, since this work will necessitate a temporary move to Senec or Pieštany, the club will now be concerned at the prospect of fighting a relegation battle in exile. 

James Baxter

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Dec 03 2012

Ružomberok 2-2 Slovan Bratislava

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For all that it was played in bitterly cold conditions, Saturday’s Ružomberok v Slovan Bratislava game could only make you regret that the Corgoň Liga is now entering its long winter hibernation. Ruža’s high-spirited ultras group provided a fine atmosphere and the teams produced a skillful, wholehearted contest which ended in a rightful share of the spoils.

Ruža have exceeded expectations this autumn, especially when we consider the ‘restructuring’, necessitated by funding cuts, that took place at the club in pre-season. Coach Ladislav Šimčo has ensured that his threadbare squad has always been organised and resilient,  resulting in a record of 7 wins and 7 draws from 19 fixtures – good enough to leave them just two points adrift of second place. Even during a seven-game winless streak in August and September, Ruža were tough to break down on their travels, as proved by 0-0 draws away to Žilina, Trenčín and Zlaté Moravce.

Last week’s first away success, 1-0 at Trnava, was not well-received by the home side’s new coach Peter Zelenský, who accused his opponents of playing ‘anti-football’. That was undoubtedly a graceless slur on Zelenský’s part, but Ruža will not worry over-much about it. In fact, other teams could learn from the way they defend as a unit, or from how they utilise the power and aggression of Congolese striker Mulumbu Mukendi. And they are not without creative players anyway ; captain Tomáš Ďubek, for example, is one of the league’s most skillful central midfielders.

For their part, Slovan did go into the season with top-of-the-table aspirations. Yet, considering that the campaign started badly enough for Vladimír Weiss to tender his resignation as coach just three games in, they will still be delighted to be 6 points clear by this stage. Samuel Slovák, Weiss’s successor, seems to have found the right way to blend the talents at his disposal, to the extent that the likes of Erik Grendel and Marko Milinković are beginning to look far too good for Slovak football. And, unlike every other side in the league, Slovan have never got stuck in a winless rut. No doubt it’s helped that, when they have lost, Slovák has accepted the fact without looking for excuses. A lesson there for the likes of Zelenský perhaps.

One key aspect of Saturday’s game was the battle between Mukendi and Slovan’s young centre-backs, Dávid Hudák and Kristian Kolčák. Early on, it looked like a battle Mukendi would win comfortably. He put his team ahead in the 5th minute, running onto Štefan Pekár’s through ball before finishing well, and looked stronger in the physical challenges. With Ďubek seeing plenty of the ball as well, it was a difficult opening for Slovan. But they gradually came into the game, equalising on the half-hour. This too was a fine finish ; Lester Peltier picked up the ball on the left, drifted diagonally across the pitch accompanied by a couple of defenders, then hit a low, curling shot which appeared to surprise ‘keeper Lukáš Zich.

The second-half saw Slovan mostly in the ascendancy. Hudák and Kolčák seemed to be coping better with Mukendi and the midfield began to move the ball around with ominous ease. With 70 minutes gone, they confirmed this superiority with a goal of real beauty. Milinković glided past Lukáš Greššák down the right, looked up and crossed to the near-post, from where Filip Hlohovský directed the ball past Zich with a flick of his heel. The small band of visiting fans weren’t celebrating for long, though. Within five minutes, Mukendi was  tripped on the edge of the Slovan box, and Lukáš Bielák smashed the resulting free-kick through the defensive wall and out of reach of Matúš Putnocký’s dive.

Mukendi and Milinković went close as both sides pushed for a winner, but this was the most honourable of draws. There was nothing in it to suggest that Slovan will not maintain their lead at the top of the league when spring comes around, though the question of whether they can hold onto their best players is a pertinent one. Ruža, meanwhile, showed all the qualities which have enabled them to have such a good autumn. After the final whistle, the home ultras’ chants of ‘ďakujeme’ were proof of their satisfaction, while the Slovan players shared some moments of mutual appreciation with their own followers.

Slovák was typically fair-minded in his after-match press-conference. ‘We came here to win,’ he said, ‘but it’s a difficult place to visit. The home fans created a great atmosphere which encouraged their team forward. (Ruža) were better in the first-half, we were better in the second. A draw is fair.’ It was left to Milinković to suggest that Slovan were worth all three points. ‘We had more of the game overall,’ said the Serb, ‘and we went 2-1 up with 20 minutes left, so we should have won.’ Šimčo agreed with Slovák that the draw was fair, but expressed the view that Peltier’s goal was the turning point. ‘Our defenders should have put him under more pressure, but his finish was fantastic. We were on top until then, but Slovan were better in the second-half.’

As for the other games, Zlaté Moravce remain in second place, but a 1-1 home draw with bottom side Trnava takes them no closer to Slovan. Senica are now third, following Rolando Blackburn’s last minute equaliser away to Trenčín in the Sunday fixture. Košice finally won an away game, 2-1 away to Banská Bystrica on Saturday. The three points take them into fourth, above Žilina (who lost 2-0 away to strugglingNitraon Friday night) and Trenčín. In lower mid-table, Prešov won their second successive home game, 2-1 against Myjava. The visitors are one side who will probably be glad of the winter break, given that they now have just one point from four outings.

James Baxter

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