Archive for March, 2013

Mar 28 2013

Slovakia 0-0 Sweden

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This game was a dead duck even before it started, killed off by a combination of the freezing weather, by Slovakia’s disappointing result in the ‘must-win’ Lithuania game last Friday and by the (entirely predictable) absence of Sweden’s star man, Zlatan Ibrahimović. Those who decided that Tuesday was a night for the fireside and the TV were the wise ones.

For the coaches, it may have been a useful exercise. Stanislav Griga and Michal Hipp made no fewer than nine changes from Friday’s starting line-up, in the hope of seeing if some of their squad players could fit into the team’s shape. On that score, there can be no complaints. Dušan Perniš did a solid job in goal, Lukáš Pauschek, Marián Čišovský and Marek Čech likewise in defence. Pauschek is a curiosity ; a perfectly respectable international full-back who cannot get into Slovan Bratislava’s Corgoň Liga side. Čišovský had little trouble with the Swedish forwards and did quite well in his wrestling matches with Jonas Olsson when the WBA centre-back came forward for first-half corners.

For the first 10 minutes, midfielder Richard Lásik, making a first full appearance, looked as if he might bring some genuine verve to the occasion. But then he picked up a yellow card for the kind of challenge that’s about as appropriate to the modern-day friendly as a risqué joke is to a puritan wedding, and settled for simply doing the correct things. Ľubomír Guldan was reliable alongside him. Further forward, Filip Hološko and Michal Ďuriš were diligent as wide attackers, but their best work tended to be too far from the penalty-area to really trouble the Swedes. Poor old Marek Bakoš, meanwhile, was a man-of-the-match candidate for his all-round game, yet failed to convert his side’s two best opportunities. He had a first-half header well-saved, admitting afterwards that he should have placed the ball differently. In the second period, he ran onto Dušan Švento’s through pass, but Kristoffer Nordfeldt was out quickly to smother his effort. This was simply good goalkeeping, as Bakoš readily agreed.

In general, Slovakia were disciplined and organised. But so were Sweden. What both sides lacked was the craft, or good luck, to get them through the opposing defence. This is, or should be, where Marek Hamšík and Juraj Kucka come in. In view of Ibrahimović’s absence, it’s nice to think that Slovakia’s Serie A players are not such prima-donnas that they won’t stay with their mates and put a shift in, even for a meaningless fixture. They played 45 minutes each, and did all they could. Sadly, that did not include the sort of brilliant finish or visionary pass that would have made the difference between a draw and a win.

Sweden were neat in possession on occasions but barely threatened the Slovak goal until the closing moments. Second-half substitute Erton Fejzullahu livened their attack up a little, while Jimmy Durmaz, another sub, nearly snatched victory in the last minute when, having burst into the penalty-area, he had his shot blocked by Perníš. The draw might not be much use to Slovakia, but defeat would have been genuinely unjust.

The 3,100 in the stadium clearly took the view that simply being there was enough of an effort. As such, the atmosphere was funereal. It would not be right to blame the fans themselves for this. The players, obviously, have reached the stage where they really need to improve their results, especially against beatable sides in games that matter. Then there’s the dear old SFZ. This wise body of wise men cannot influence the factors I mentioned at the beginning of this write-up, though that may, on balance, be a good thing. I somehow suspect that, if asked to choose between pleasant spring warmth and the numbing east wind as ideal conditions for a March friendly, the SFZ would contrive to opt for the latter.

But what the association can do is to think more creatively about issues like tickets and pricing.Slovakiawould struggle at present to fill any stadium, which probably means that charging 30 Euros for seats in the side stands is just a little over-optimistic. For the next home friendly, why not try a 5 Euro offer and see how many turn up? It would also be an idea to announce an exact date for the start of ticket sales and stick to it. The SFZ and their ticket agents failed in both regards ahead of the Lithuania and Sweden games, possibly alienating a few potential fans in the process. That’s before we’ve even mentioned words like ‘marketing’ and ‘promotion’.

That’s the kind of night it was really, one for airing moans and groans. Still, these should not be extended to the team and coaches. The players could have been an easy target but, while they may be struggling with a few of the game’s fundamentals at present, they are at least trying. The same is true of Griga and Hipp. They are constantly being asked why they don’t alter the team’s formation, but their stock reply – that the players are familiar with 4-2-3-1 and create chances with it – is, for the most part, true. The duo are now pledging to take a trip out to Turkey to see if new Slovak citizen David Depetris could be the man to provide a few goals. By the time he makes his debut (the next fixture is Liechtenstein away in June), the only memory of the Sweden game will be of the frostbite.  

James Baxter

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Mar 24 2013

Slovakia 1-1 Lithuania

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The build-up to this game seemed interminable somehow. During it, certain statements were uttered so often by the Slovak camp they came to sound like mantras. ‘We have to win’ was one, ‘the first goal will be crucial’ was another. But Stanislav Griga’s warning that ‘we must make sure these aren’t just empty words’ proved to be the most apposite of all.

The best way to ensure you score that ‘crucial’ first goal is not to miss an open net inside the first minute, pass up other presentable chances and then to allow your defence to open up as obligingly as the automatic doors at the supermarket. Slovakia did all those during the opening phase againstLithuania. Juraj Kucka’s miss, viewed from the other end of the ground, was unbelievable. He appeared to be standing directly under the crossbar as Ján Ďurica nodded Marek Sapara’s free-kick across to him, yet managed – don’t ask me how – to head up and over instead of down and in. After 7 minutes, Marek Hamšík freed the ball from a goalmouth tangle but also hit his effort too high.

Anxiety had already crept into Slovakia’s game. A few passes were overhit and one or two needless free-kicks conceded. Lithuania began to gain in confidence, culminating in their 19th minute goal. Mindaugas Kalonas dribbled into the penalty-area and, although he lost control of the ball, the home defenders were too distant to clear it. Darvydas Šernas swept it gleefully past Dušan Kuciak.

Still 70 minutes to go, though. Perhaps the first goal wouldn’t prove crucial after all. Certainly,Slovakiadidn’t go short of opportunities for the rest of the half. Just after the half-hour, Hamšík ran clear onto Róbert Mak’s pass, but hit a feeble effort straight at goalkeeper Žydrunas Karčemarskas. Sapara was then desperately unlucky to see his beautifully curled free-kick bounce back off the underside of the bar. Surely an equaliser had to come and, after 40 minutes, it did. The ball was returned into the box following another Sapara free-kick, a visiting defender failed to head it away and Martin Jakubko, showing surprising agility for a big man, scored with a scissors-kick. There was time for Mak to pass up another opportunity before the interval – he had a clear sight of goal but hesitated long enough for a defender to close him down – but the second-half was bound to see Slovakia take the lead…..

Instead, the home team had lots of possession, put plenty of crosses into the box, and took more than their share of long-range shots, but failed to add to Jakubko’s strike. Martin Škrtel had a header well-saved by substitute ‘keeper Giedrius Arlauskis and Kucka was unfortunate to hit the post with an effort from outside the area. There was, however, an increasing air of despair about some of the play. And you know that Griga and Michal Hipp are getting desperate when they abandon their 4-2-3-1 formation in favour of 4-4-2, as they did after 70 minutes by replacing Viktor Pečovský with Marek Bakoš. The switch didn’t quite work out ; Bakoš is happy playing as a lone-forward himself, and didn’t seem to know what to do as high balls continued to be aimed at Jakubko. It was a time to regret the absence of a striker like Stanislav Šesták, or even – no sniggering, please – Filip Šebo.

But all that gives the impression that the game was mostly a procession towards the Lithuania goal. It wasn’t quite like that. Indeed, the visitors should have won it late on. Arvydas Novikovas teased Slovakia down the right before finding Šernas unmarked about eight yards from goal. But the number 10 spoiled the positive impression he’d created in the preceding 89 minutes by dragging the ball wide. Earlier, Kuciak had produced a save as good as anything demanded from theLithuania‘keepers when he kept out a powerful effort from Deivydas Matulevičius.

So it was slightly disappointing afterwards to hear one or two Slovak players claiming, amidst the regret at two more dropped points, that ‘we were better’, ‘we had more quality’, ‘Lithuania did nothing we hadn’t expected from them’ etc etc. You are not better and don’t have more quality than the opposition when you don’t score more goals than them. And Lithuania, although they did look vulnerable in defence at times, stuck together, made the best of what they had and earned themselves an away point.

As for individual Slovakia performances, one thought that occurs to me is that, when most of the football you watch is in the routinely derided Corgoň Liga, you look forward to the international games as a chance to see players from bigger, better leagues in action. But neither Hamšík nor Kucka made their Serie A pedigree count in this game. With Hamšík, it’s odd that a player who scores goals on a regular basis for Napoli should seize up when presented with opportunities to strike for his country. Kucka was an even bigger disappointment, not just for that early miss but for the number of passes he misplaced and wrong options he took. In injury time, he had the ball on the corner of the penalty-area and team-mates pleading with him to cross it. Instead, he thrashed it high into the stand. You wonder whether all the ‘must-win’ utterances had got to these players in particular. Perhaps the knowledge that they play on a bigger stage than most of their team-mates makes them put extra pressure on themselves.

On the plus side, Jakubko led the line well and, in any case, a goalscoring Slovak centre-forward is not to be sniffed at. Dušan Švento had a good game as an attacking left-back and Mak, making a first international start, had some decent moments. Kudos as well to Csaba Lászlo, Lithuania’s Hungarian coach, for insisting before the game that Sapara was Slovakia’s ‘leader’ and key player. Whereas you go to a Slovakia game hoping for something special from Hamšík, you know these days that Sapara will impress. It’s not that he never makes mistakes, but he always wants the ball, he takes responsibility, he tries to make things happen and his technique is near faultless.

Finally, I should acknowledge, having advocated Žilina as THE home venue for Slovakia, that the turnout on Friday – just 4,650 – was pretty poor, especially as it included 500 or so Lithuanians. In mitigation, it was a bitterly cold night, with gusts of the spiteful east wind regularly blowing snow off the stand roofs. In any case, it felt like there were more in the ground than the official attendance suggests ; it was certainly intimate enough at the back of the south stand. Griga had said before the game that the team had to ‘win back the fans‘ trust‘, but I’m not sure that applies as much in Žilina, where the atmosphere tends to be quite supportive of Slovakia, than it would in harder-to-please Bratislava.

Anyway, time will tell whether Tuesday’s friendly with Sweden, another side to suffer home frustration on Friday, will be better-attended. And, just maybe, the fact it isn’t ‘a game we have to win’ will help Hamšík, Kucka and the rest to play with a freer spirit.

 James Baxter

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Mar 19 2013

Slovakia in Zilina

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Slovakia face two games at Žilina’s Štadión pod Dubňom over the next week ; a World Cup qualifier against Lithuania and a friendly against Sweden. Facilities-wise, Žilina is the only sensible choice of venue, not, of course, that this has stopped the SFZ using Pasienky over recent months. Results-wise, it’s a rather different story. Below is a recap of the last five international games played in Slovakia’s third (or fourth, depending on which set of figures you believe) city.

Slovakia 1 Chile 2, Friendly, November 2009

Nobody cared much about the result on a night which was memorable mainly for the atmosphere and the superb football played by the South Americans. World Cup qualification had been achieved just a month earlier and the stadium rocked (almost literally) all night in celebration. Even the odd non-native was happy to join in with the ‘who’s not jumping isn’t Slovak’ chants.

Chile, meanwhile, were mesmerising, playing the sort of quick, slick pass-and-move football that made Marcelo Bielsa’s reputation, and earned him a fan for life in opposite number Vladimír Weiss. Though outclassed, Slovakia scored an excellent goal themselves, and two former Žilina team-mates were instrumental in it. Peter Pekarík provided a perfect cross, Stanislav Šesták flashed home a header. Overall, a great night to be a football fan.

Slovakia 0 Norway 1, Friendly, March 2010

And a quick return to Earth. Weiss was unhappy with several aspects of this game ; that it followed just 48 hours after the annual Player of the Year jamboree, that John Carew didn’t play for Norway (Egil Olsen’s team had been invited because they seemed to offer good preparation for the World Cup group game against the similarly route-one New Zealand) and that Slovakia simply didn’t play very well.

Norway were tough, pragmatic and eager to prove that, despite failing to reach South Africa themselves, they were at least as good as their hosts. Morten Molskred’s 67th minute goal suggested they had a point.

Slovakia 1 Republic of Ireland 1, Euro 2012 qualifier, October 2010

Both sides had won their first two games of this qualification campaign, but lost their third – Slovakia in Armenia, Ireland at home to Russia. This was their fourth, and both were in an anxious, ‘must not lose’ frame of mind. This produced fare that could kindly be called workaday. If you like, it was goulash and dumplings against stew and potatoes. So it was fitting that two hulking defenders – Sean St Ledger for the Irish, Ján Ďurica for the hosts -should score the goals, both from corner-kicks.

The atmosphere was lively again, though, as 2,500+ boys and girls in green joined the locals in a high-spirited sell-out crowd.

Slovakia 0 Armenia 4, Euro 2012 qualifier, September 2011

Following another turgid draw with the Irish (0-0 in Dublin), Slovakia still nurtured qualification hopes going into this game. Weiss, though, was cautious, and quick to remind anyone who would listen that the Armenians had outplayed his team in Yerevan a year earlier.

The first-half was even enough but, once ahead, the visitors proceeded to cut Slovakia up with the speed and efficiency of a new office shredder. The Žilina crowd had been enthusiastic at the start, but most fans had long since made for home by the time the fourth goal went in.

Weiss was far more honest in his post-match assessment than some of his players, one or two of whom tried to blame bad luck for the defeat.

Slovakia 0 Russia 1, Euro 2012 qualifier, October 2011

There was still a theoretical chance that Slovakia could qualify for Poland and Ukraine before this game, but it would only be sustained by a victory. Weiss seemed to think the best way to earn the three points was to cling on at 0-0 until the 80th minute or so, then prey on Russian anxiety. The problem with such a philosophy is that it can be undone by a stroke of genius, orof good fortune, on the part of the opposition. Andrei Arshavin nearly supplied the former on a couple of occasions, but Alan Dzagojev did benefit from the latter when his 72nd minute long-range shot was deflected past Ján Mucha.

Perhaps it was a good thing that Russia won. 4,000 or so of their fans had somehow procured tickets for the game, and there were large groups in every section of the ground. They were equable enough in victory, but some might have turned unpleasant had the team been defeated.

James Baxter

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Mar 14 2013

Slovakia squad for Lithuania & Sweden

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Below is Slovakia’s squad for the two late-March home games – the World Cup qualifier against Lithuania (Friday 22nd) and the friendly against Sweden (Tuesday 26th). Both will be played in (hurrah!) Žilina.

But what do we notice about this list? I would say the most significant thing is the missing names, especially those of Vladimír Weiss and Miroslav Stoch. A space has actually been left open for Weiss – there are 22 players in this squad, as opposed to the usual 23 – but he suffered a minor injury in Pescara’s last league game and is going for a scan. If he is deemed unfit after that, Stanislav Griga and Michal Hipp will call up someone from the reserve list, possibly Trenčín’s František Kubík.

Róbert Vittek, whose international comeback lasted just 12 minutes of last month’s friendly in Belgium, is still ruled out, as is Mainz defender Radoslav Zabavník, who recently suffered mild concussion. Coming back to the squad are the Plzeň pair, Marián Čišovský and Marek Bakoš, along with Ľubomír Guldan, Filip Hološko and Martin Jakubko. Players will, as always with Slovak squads, be flying in from far and wide, but Čišovský, Bakoš and Michal Ďuriš do make Plzeň the most represented single club. There are three players too from the Corgoň Liga ; Slovan Bratislava’s Matúš Putnocký and Lukás Pauschek and Žilina’s Viktor Pečovský.

The Lithuania game is, of course, the more important of the two fixtures, and only a victory will maintain Slovakia’s hopes of going to Brazil. Ideally, they will start as they did against Latvia last October (you can’t ask for much more than two goals within the first ten minutes) but avoid the nervous finish. And they certainly can’t afford to concede an early, avoidable goal from a set-piece, as they did in September’s damaging 1-1 draw in Vilnius.

It’s probably pointless to attempt to guess the starting line-up ten days ahead of the game, but the temptation to speculate over some selections is difficult to resist. I’d rather like to see Pauschek get a start in one of the full-back positions. He is versatile enough to play in either but, since both Dušan Švento and Marek Čech are left-sided, has more chance of claiming the right-back spot.

The midfield combination will be interesting. Pečovský and Guldan are both essentially defensive and are not going to play together in a game where attack will have to be the priority. Assuming no late injuries, Marek Hamšík and Marek Sapara will definitely start, and Juraj Kucka probably will. The likelihood is that Hamšík will be on the left of the attacking midfield three, with Sapara  between him and a right-sided attacker, possibly Róbert Mak, whose speed and directness gave Belgium plenty to think about in last month’s game.

Then there’s the troublesome question of who to play up front. I’d go for Martin Jakubko, the only recognised striker to score for Slovakia since Hološko (in a friendly against Denmark)nearly two years ago. Hološko himself, with his height, pace and recent club form, is a tempting alternative, but he has often been frustrating at international level.

The decision to play these games in Žilina has given me what I wanted. Hopefully, the rest of the locals will now come out and support. Tickets are being sold for the individual games(€30 on the sides, €15 behind the goals), or as a package (€50 and €25 respectively). This being Žilina, where all the stands are close to the pitch, the behind the goal seats are by far the better value. I’ve got mine – the only problem now will be remembering NOT to support the team in yellow and green at the Lithuania game….


Dušan Kuciak (Legia Varšava)
Dušan Perniš (Pogoň Štetín)
Matúš Putnocký (ŠK Slovan Bratislava)

Lukáš Pauschek (ŠK Slovan Bratislava)
Marián Čišovský (FC Viktoria Plzeň)
Martin Škrtel (FC Liverpool)
Kornel Saláta (FK Rostov)
Ján Ďurica (Lokomotiv Moskva)
Tomáš Hubočan (Zenit Petrohrad)
Dušan Švento (Red Bull Salzburg)
Marek Čech (Trabzonspor AS)

Ľubomír Guldan (Ludogorec Razgrad)
Viktor Pečovský (MŠK Žilina)
Juraj Kucka (FC Janov)
Marek Sapara (Trabzonspor AS)
Richard Lásik (Brescia Calcio)
Marek Hamšík (SSC Neapol)
Róbert Mak (1. FC Norimberg)

Michal Ďuriš (FC Viktoria Plzeň)
Marek Bakoš (FC Viktoria Plzeň)
Martin Jakubko (FC Amkar Perm)
Filip Hološko (Besiktas Istanbul

James Baxter

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Mar 04 2013

Corgon Liga Round-up March 3rd

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It is important for the Corgoň Liga’s ‘autumn champions’ to make a strong start to the season’s spring phase, so Slovan Bratislava will be delighted with their 4-1 win over Vion Zlaté Moravce at Pasienky on Friday. A 6th minute goal from visiting striker Andrej Hodek seemed to spark Slovan into life and they had the game won by the half-hour mark, courtesy of strikes from Filip Hlohovský, Lester Peltier (two) and Jiří Kladrubský. Vion goalkeeper Martin Kuciak readily admitted that the last two goals were his fault, and added that he and his team-mates  ‘were praying it wouldn’t turn into a real humiliation’. Perhaps a switch to a back three didn’t help Vion ; they reverted to a four-man defence for the second-half, and looked more solid, but it was already too late.

Košice replaced Vion in second spot, seven points behind Slovan, as they easily defeated neighbours Prešov on Saturday. Oumar Diaby put Košice ahead after 29 minutes and Martin Bukata added two late goals. The result should ease fears that Košice will struggle to replace Dávid Škutka and Ján Novák, who scored 18 of the side’s 25 autumn goals between them. 19-year-old Bukata will be particularly pleased ; he suffered what looked like a serious injury in a game against Ružomberok last November, just days after being named in Slovakia’s Under-21 squad. His career looks to be up and running once again. The attendance (4,155) should also encourage Košice, the more so in view of some of the sub-1,000 crowds they were drawing in spring 2012.

Banská Bystrica were another side to try out ‘three at the back’ tactics in the first round of spring fixtures. They were rather more successful than Vion as well, as they became the first visiting team this season to win at Žilina. Bystrica’s left wing-back Tomáš Hučko, a winter transfer target for the home club, was the game’s most prominent figure. After ten minutes, he hit the inside of the post with a fine curling shot. Eight minutes into the second-half, he provided the pass from which Pavel Vrána scored the decisive goal. Seven minutes from the end, he had the ideal chance to seal the victory, but saw his weak penalty saved by Martin Dúbravka. Žilina gave the impression that only a severe electric shock would have jolted them into life, as Bystrica’s defensive formation was rarely tested.

Myjava have been having problems getting their ground fit for play, so their fixture with Trenčín was switched to the latter’s artificial pitch. With less than two minutes played, Trenčín’s František Kubík was fouled in the area by Vladimír Kukoľ and Peter Mazan converted the penalty. Midway through the second period, Mazan stepped up to the spot again, but this time blazed his effort high over the bar. Between the two penalties, Myjava passed the ball well enough to pleasantly surprise coach Ladislav Hudec, who admitted he’d been worried about the game in view of his side’s disrupted winter preparations. Trenčín’s Adrián Guľa, meanwhile, was pleased with the win but took the surprising view that ‘scoring so early seemed to hurt us’. He added that ‘this performance didn’t reflect our players’ potential’.

All Slovakia’s football writers are predicting that Trnava will avoid relegation with something to spare. They will thus feel vindicated by the 2-0 win over visiting Nitra on Saturday. This was another game to feature a goal within the first two minutes ; Ivan Schranz collected Ivan Hodúr’s pass and slammed the ball past Martin Chudý. With the game entering its final 15 minutes, substitute Ladislav Tomáček sealed the points with a fine long-range strike. Both the result and the attendance (5,000+) would seem to justify Trnava’s decision to continue playing at Štadión Antona Malatinského, even as reconstruction work on the ground begins.

Sunday’s game saw Ružomberok earn an impressive success at Senica. That Ruža kept a clean sheet should not be too surprising, since they did so five times in their nine autumn away fixtures. Rather more striking is that the three goals they put in Senica’s net double their away tally for the season. Tomáš Ďubek, Mário Almaský and Štefan Pekár were the scorers. Perhaps Ruža were inspired by the surroundings, as Senica’s ground now boasts smart new stands behind the goals. As for the home side, their priority is to get their on-field act together quickly enough to maintain their challenge for next season’s European places.

Slovan 4 Zlaté Moravce 1

Košice 3 Prešov 0

Žilina 0 Banská Bystrica 1

Trenčín 1 Myjava 0

Trnava 2 Nitra 0

Senica 0 Ružomberok 3

James Baxter

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