Mar 24 2013

Slovakia 1-1 Lithuania

Published by at 5:59 am under Uncategorized

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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