Feb 07 2013

Belgium 2-1 Slovakia

Published by at 9:58 am under Uncategorized

A fairly predictable result in Bruges and a Slovak performance which can be split into five quite distinct phases.

The first 12 minutes bordered on the catastrophic. First, the ball struck Tomáš Hubočan on the elbow inside the penalty-area. The referee awarded a spot-kick, which Eden Hazard converted. Almost immediately Róbert Vittek, making his 80th international appearance but his first for 17 months, had to be helped off the field after pulling a muscle. Martin Jakubko, the only real like-for-like replacement in the squad, had developed a fever after arriving in Belgium, so it was Michal Ďuriš who took over the lone striker’s role.

For the rest of the first-half, Slovakia were merely poor, but at least their luck improved. Belgium came at them as incessantly as ocean waves, but a combination of poor choice-making and some sturdy defending, especially from Martin Škrtel, kept the deficit to one. The visitors’ only meaningful attack of the half came two minutes from its end ; Dušan Švento whipped over an inviting left-wing cross but Juraj Kucka wasn’t balanced enough to direct his header on target.

That little contribution didn’t redeem Švento’s night. He had been tormented by Belgium’s right-sided players, by Kevin Mirallas in particular, so it was no surprise to see him replaced at half-time by Lukáš Pauschek. The Slovan youngster is a quiet, dependable type and his arrival helped make Slovakia much more secure. Other players, meanwhile, could count themselves lucky to get a prolonged opportunity. Viktor Pečovský’s first 45 minutes showed that winter warm-ups for Žilina against Podbrezova or Michalovce are less than adequate preparation for the task of tracking players like Hazard. Even Marek Sapara failed to reach his usual standards. After the break, both began to find their men with simple passes and, thanks in part to their efforts, Slovakia emerged into their competent phase. Not a lot was happening in attack, however.  Belgium were generally able to read Marek Hamšík’s attempts at killer through balls and Miroslav Stoch’s jinks inside from the left-wing. And, Ďuriš, for all his running, was still seeing little of the ball.

Then we had the really encouraging period. The key moment was probably the substitution of Stoch by Róbert Mak. Hamšík moved over to the left as the Nuremberg youngster took up a position on the right. Suddenly, the Belgium defence found themselves having to deal with a new problem ; a wide player with the pace, confidence and determination to get behind them. It was also an effort by Mak that necessitated the night’s best save. Sapara’s neat reverse pass found him in space, and his first-time shot was blocked in unorthodox fashion by Jean-Francois Gillet’s legs.

But it was yet another young substitute who scored Slovakia’s equaliser. Richard Lásik had come on for Hubočan in the 70th minute. With three minutes left, he was on the edge of the area as Belgium cleared a corner. Skillfully freeing himself from a defender’s attentions, he hit a low shot through the crowd in the box. Gillet seemed to be wrongfooted by a slight deflection as the ball entered the net.

Then, sadly, there was the final act. It would probably be unfair to suggest that Lásik got carried away after his goal, but he was certainly out of position as a diagonal pass found Dries Mertens down the left channel. Škrtel was obliged to go across and close him down, but Mertens had enough time to do what Stoch loves to do – manoeuvre the ball onto his right foot and curl it into the far corner of the net.

Friendlies don’t actually prove very much, but this one did underline something that’s been becoming clear for a while now ; thatSlovakiaare doing a decent job of developing their young players. Pauschek, Mak and Lásik all played important roles in improving the performance in Bruges. It’s probably no co’incidence that all have been key figures in the recently evolving Under-21 side.

As for moans and groans, I will never back down from the idea that Hubočan should not be moved from centre-back to accomodate Ján Ďurica, at least until Ďurica improves his distribution from the back and curbs his tendency to get involved in silly flare-ups. It’s also difficult to shoehorn Pečovský, Hamšík, Sapara and Kucka into the same midfield. Pečovský, though by far the least eye-catching of the four, is the most defensively reliable and has to play. Sapara and Hamšik have proved themselves to be international class and are also obvious selections. Shoving one of them out wide so that Kucka can play centrally does not seem like the right thing to do – at least while Kucka’s performances continue to be uneven. It’s a tricky dilemma though, as theGenoaman has drive, strength and (when he gets it right)  formidable long-range shooting power. Finally, of course, the curse of the centre-forward continues. Vittek may be fit again in time for the Lithuania game next month, but my inclination would probably be to start with Jakubko, the only recognised striker to register an international goal in 2012.

Of course,Lithuania will present a totally different challenge. For now at least, as joint-coach Stanislav Griga said after the Belgium encounter, the second-half in Bruges should make Slovakia feel good about themselves again. Though uncompromisingly honest about the first period – ‘we were as bad as against the Czechs, our movement was poor and we were half-asleep’ – Griga was encouraged by what happened after the break. Mak in particular, he added, ‘injected a current into us’. Whatever the next few months bring, Slovakia seem to have some talents to base their long-term future around.

James Baxter

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