Archive for May, 2013

May 29 2013

Slovakia: End of Season Round-Up

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The Slovak football season is now over. Slovan Bratislava are worthy champions and cup-winners and, on a dramatic final Sunday, Trnava won their survival shoot-out at Prešov, sending the hosts down to the II Liga.

Slovan did the hard work over the first 28 games of the season, with the end coming as a slight anti-climax. The fact that they only won one of their last five might not be such a bad thing, though, as it could make coach Samuel Slovák aware of some of the flaws in the side ahead of Champions League qualification later in the summer. A sleepy start to their finalleague fixture, away to Banská Bystrica, resulted in a 1-0 defeat to Martin Chrien‘s first-minute goal. The hosts had only secured survival earlier in the week, thanks to a similarly narrow victory over Trnava.

Senica were one of the more consistent sides over the season’s closing weeks, and a 1-0 last- day victory at Nitra confirmed their second place finish. Róbert Pillár was the goalscorer. The game was played behind closed doors as a result of an unsavoury incident during Nitra’s previous home match, against Trnava, when a fan in the main stand assaulted visiting coach Vladimír Eckhardt. The whole episode casts a sad shadow over what has otherwise been an excellent last couple of months or so for Nitra. Considered together with last autumn’s ‘Seydouba Soumah incident’, it also means that next seasons Nitra-Trnava games will be very closely watched.

Trenčín will join Senica in Europa League qualifying. They were guaranteed third place even before their 2-1 win at Vion Zlaté Moravce. František Kubík and Samuel Štefánik put Trenčín 2-0 up before half-time, with Furtado Oliviera Bolinho replying for Vion in the second-half. Both clubs are saying goodbye to coaches who have done fantastic jobs for them. Juraj Jarábek is leaving Vion after four-and-a-half years in charge, while Adrián Guľa is joining Žilina.

Košice will be a little disappointed by their finish to the season. Dávid Guba’s last-minute goal on Sunday gave visiting Žilina a 2-2 draw, and allowed Myjava to leapfrog the hosts into fourth place. Earlier, Jakub Paur’s goal in the second minute had given Žilina the perfect start, but strikes from Kamil Karaš and Uroš Matič looked to have won it for Košice. Coach Ján Kozák was still satisfied with Košice’s efforts, and he can certainly be happy with the campaign as a whole, which has been in vivid contrast to last season’s relegation battle. Žilina have had a very poor spring in the league, but their cup-final appearance does at least give them a shot at Europa League qualification.

Myjava’s memorable season finished on a high, thanks to a 1-0 win at Ružomberok. Pavol Kosík scored the decisive goal. Coach Ladislav Hudec was in Oscar speech mode afterwards, thanking players, fans and the board for making such an excellent campaign possible. Ruža too have done very well, considering the cuts made to their budget last summer. They now part company with coach Ladislav Šimčo, whose tireless work with a young squad will be difficult to replicate.

And so to the real final-day drama. Trnava travelled to Prešov knowing that nothing but a win would preserve their Corgoň Liga status. Many had already written them off following a limp defeat at home to Bystrica in their previous match. Prešov, meanwhile, had just earned their only away win of the season (at Žilina) and needed only to avoid defeat to stay up. As sometimes happens, though, it was the team that needed to do more that ultimately prevailed. In the 26th minute, home defender Jaroslav Kolbas fouled Ivan Schranz in the penalty-area and was sent-off. Ján Vlasko converted the spot-kick. Trnava’s numerical advantage was ended after 53 minutes, when Miroslav Karhan was shown the red card, but they held on for a 1-0 win.

Perhaps the day’s real hero was Trnava’s Czech striker Martin Vyskočil. His father had passed away on the Thursday before the match, but he still opted to play. ‘Dad was a professional footballer like me,’ Vyskočil explained later. ‘He’d have told me not to sit at home being sad but to go and help my team.’ He then added a few words of wisdom for the Prešov players : ‘They should understand that relegation is sad, but it isn’t a tragedy. This is only sport, tragedy is something very different.’ Vyskočil is right of course. For proof, Prešov could have a look at the II Liga table. At the top, and ready to take their place in next season’s Corgoň Liga, are DAC Dunajská Streda, relegated just a year ago. Their coach, Mikuláš Radványi, characterises their campaign as ‘difficult but beautiful’. ‘The club is in conflict with the local authority, and we’ve frequently had our water and heating cut off,’ he says, ‘but there’s been a wonderful team-spirit among our players.’ If Prešov can generate that sort of spirit over the next 12 months, they too could make a quick return to the top-flight.

Banská Bystrica 1 Slovan 0 (Slovan are champions and enter Champions League qualifying)

Nitra 0 Senica 1 (Senica finish second and enter Europa League qualifying)

Zlaté Moravce 1 Trenčín 2 (Trenčín finish third and enter Europa League qualifying)

Košice 2 Žilina 2 (Žilina enter Europa League qualifying as beaten cup-finallists)

Ružomberok 0 Myjava 1

Prešov 0 Trnava 1 (Prešov finish bottom and are relegated to II Liga)


James Baxter

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May 19 2013

European U17 Championship Review

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Russia have won the European Under-17 Championship, hosted by Slovakia, beating Italy 5-4 on penalties in Friday’s final in Žilina. The shoot-out went to sudden-death and the hero was Russian goalkeeper Anton Mitriuškin, who not only saved three of the Italians’ spot-kicks but had been largely responsible for preserving the 0-0 scoreline during the 80 minutes of the game itself. One second-half save, from Luca Vido, an eye-catchingly skillful striker, was especially memorable.

Russia will have been glad of the penalty practice they gained in Tuesday’s semi-final with Sweden. That game too finished 0-0, the Swedes battling on well with 10 men following the 48th minute sending-off of Erdal Rakip. The shoot-out looked as if it might continue until well after midnight. It went on so long that Mitriuškin and the Swedish ‘keeper were required to take kicks. Both scored, and it was a miss by the unlucky Isak Sseswankambo that finally sealed Russia’s passage by a 10-9 scoreline.

In the other semi-final, earlier the same day, Slovakia’s adventure ended with a 2-0 defeat to the Italians. Part of the problem for the hosts here was the absence of defenders Andrej Kadlec and Denis Vavro through suspension. In the first-half especially, Italy kept cutting swathes through the Slovak backline and would have been three or four goals clear by half-time had it not been for some remarkable goalkeeping from Martin Junas. As it was, goals from Mario Pugliese and Elio Capradossi were enough. Slovakia were never short of heart, and produced a commendable second-half display that deserved at least a goal.

Still, winning their group was a fine success for the Slovaks. That they finished top and unbeaten, ahead of Austria and Switzerland, teams they’d lost to (convincingly in the Swiss case) last autumn, shows that they can absorb the lessons football teaches. A strong squad ethic was also key, perhaps best illustrated by the fact that crucial goals against both Austria and Switzerland were scored by Martin Slaninka, a player who didn’t actually start any of the games. In fact, the boy he generally replaced, Nicolas Špalek, was the one most likely to excite the crowd with his running and trickery.

The crowds at the tournament were good-natured and supportive. Slovakia’s first game, in Dubnica, was attended by over 4,000 and the clash with the Swiss drew a competition high of 8,300 to Žilina. Slovakia v Italy was watched by 7,000 and, although less than 1,000 stayed on for Russia v Sweden, the players of both of those teams were quick to signal their appreciation to the stands afterwards. During the game, the locals had divided themselves into two groups, characterised by their respective chants of ‘Rusko’ and ‘Švédsko’.

Among the 3,412 present at the final, was Michel Platini, who presented the trophy to the Russians. On arrival in Žilina, he had talked of the importance of giving smaller countries the experience of hosting tournaments such as this. Meanwhile, Jim Boyce, UEFA’s director of youth and amateur football, praised Slovakia’s organisation of the event, pointing to the first-rate training facilities and the fine quality of the pitches. He also pointed to the proximity ofŽilina’s ground to the Holiday Inn, the base for Group A and later for the semi-finallists and finallists.

I would hope this will be one legacy of the event ; the idea that Slovakia is capable of undertaking to host something which people enjoy and which doesn’t become embroiled in shame and scandal. After the fiasco of the Deaf Winter Olympics, that is much needed. Here, the hosts can’t be blamed for the one or two things that clearly weren’t quite right, such as the 2030 kick-off time for the Russia v Sweden game. That was presumably decided at the behest of Eurosport, but it did rather undermine the otherwise successful attempts to promote the matches amongst local schools and youth groups.

The Slovak players and coach now have plenty to look forward too. Finishing as one of the best six teams at this tournament means they will now contest the World Championships, to be held in the United Arab Emirates this autumn. But it is notoriously hard to predict which  individuals among a group of teenagers have the brightest long-term prospects ahead of them. Some of the squad are already with major clubs ; defender Atila Varga is with Juventus and midfielders Filip Lesniak and Tomáš Zázrivec are in England (with Tottenham and Aston Villa respectively). Vavro and Miroslav Kačer are two who have already tasted senior football – with Žilina. But if I was forced to choose one whose future I’d have confidence in, it would be captain Lukáš Haraslín. He combined strength and creativity in midfield and clearly has a leader’s personality. He is on the books of Slovan Bratislava, a club that tends to sign the best players of other Slovak clubs when a first-team position needs filling. If Haraslín can make it with them, it will be because they rate him exceptionally highly. Or perhaps another club will come in for him first.

Finally, a word for Ladislav Pecko, the Slovak coach. He has had a weird career trajectory, winning the Corgoň Liga with Slovan in 2009, getting the sack, coaching Prešov for a short spell, then fetching up with the under-17s. But he has been brilliant. He has successfully combined various personas ; disciplinarian (he confiscated the players‘ computers, smart phones etc ahead of the tournament), dispenser of avuncular reassurance, proud and excited father-figure. Tactically – witness his utilisation of Slaninka – he has been astute. His half-time talks seem to have worked, most obviously in the Switzerland game, when the team recovered from a first-half deficit, and against Italy. With men like this running the show, and there are more like Pecko out there, Slovak youth football is in very decent hands. That wasactually the case before this tournament came along. Hopefully, a few more people are aware of it now.

James Baxter

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May 15 2013

Corgon Liga Update

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Slovan Bratislava have now wasted two opportunities to wrap up their league title. Last weekend they were hammered 4-1 at Trenčín. On Saturday, they were held to a 2-2 draw by Ružomberok at Pasienky. In the most recent game, Slovan were twice ahead, through Branislav Niňaj and Juraj Halenár, but Ruža, losers in their previous four away games, responded with goals from Andrej Lovás and Tomáš Ďubek. With a seven-point lead over second-placed Senica, and just three games left to play, there is little chance of Slovan not sealing the title ; they will now hope not to slip up at Zlaté Moravce next weekend

Senica maintained their hold on second place with a 1-0 win over Trenčín on Friday. As usual, Trenčín impressed with their ball-retention and creativity, but they failed to take good chances at the start of each half. Juraj Piroška’s 29th minute penalty won it for Senica, who can now regard last weekend’s 3-0 home defeat by neighbours Myjava as an aberration.

Košice are back in third place – above Trenčín – following a 1-0 home win over Banská Bystrica on Saturday. According to their coach, Ján Kozák, the performances of two players were key to the victory ; Miroslav Viazanko, who scored the 52nd minute winning goal, and goalkeeper Darko Tofiloski, who was equal to everything Bystrica could throw at him. Kozák’s opposite number, Norbert Hrnčár, agreed about Tofiloski. ‘He saved what he could and even what he couldn’t,’ the frustrated Bystrica coach said. ‘We created so many chances -at least one of them should have brought us a goal.’ As it is, the result leaves Bystrica still needing at least one more win to secure their Corgoň Liga status.

Hrnčár will be relieved that Prešov failed to improve upon their appalling away record on Saturday, when they lost 2-0 away to in-form Myjava. Zoltán Harsányi and Pavol Kosík scored the decisive goals, in only the second match to be played under the hosts’ new floodlights. Visiting coach Jozek Bubenko felt the game’s key moment was Ján Novák’s failure to beat the home ‘keeper in a ‘one-on-one’ with the score at 1-0. ‘If he’d scored, it would have been a different game,’ said Bubenko, ‘but goalscoring seems to be an insoluble conundrum for us.’

Trnava move above Prešov following a 3-2 win over Vion Zlaté Moravce on Sunday. This game was perhaps more dramatic than it should have been ; Trnava were 2-0 up by the 50thminute, thanks to goals from Martin Vyskočil and Oliver Augustíni. But Vion fought back with the help of Srdjan Grabež’s own goal, which was quickly followed by an equaliser from Karol Mészáros. Marek Kaščák then scored Trnava’s winner, to the relief of coach Vladimír Eckhardt. ‘Vion have given better teams than us problems this season,’ he said, ‘but the win could be vital at the end of the season.

Žilina v Nitra was the final fixture scheduled for this round, but it was rearranged for April 23rd because of the European Under-17 Championship (more on that later). Nitra won 2-1.

Slovan 2 Ružomberok 2

Senica 1 Trenčín 0

Košice 1 Banská Bystrica 0

Myjava 2 Prešov 0

Trnava 3 Zlaté Moravce 2

Žilina 1 Nitra 2 (played on April 23rd)


James Baxter

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May 03 2013

Slovan beat Zilina 2-0 in Slovak Cup Final

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Cup games, and especially finals, are supposed to be unpredictable occasions where form can fly out of the window and odds can be defied. This was not like that. Unlike in the sides’ league clashes this season (which have resulted in three draws), Slovan showed exactly why they are currently so far ahead of Žilina. They have been better coached than their opponentsfor some months now, they were more coherent as a team, and they had better players in just about every position on the pitch. The 2-0 scoreline in Ružomberok was a fair reflection of proceedings.

The decisive goals provided a decent showcase of Slovan’s strengths. There was individual brilliance in their creation, and both were taken with the sort of ruthlessness Žilina haven’t shown all spring. The first arrived after 26 minutes. Marko Milinković stepped inside one opposing defender and outside another before stroking the perfect pass into the path of Igor Žofčák. The Slovan captain smashed the ball unhesitatingly past Martin Krnáč. Three minutes after half-time, Seydoubah Soumah prodded the ball through the legs of Žilina centre-back Jozef Piaček and Lester Peltier propelled it into the net with a confident sweep of his right foot.

Oddly enough, the second goal ushered in Žilina’s best spell of the match. On 52 minutes, Ernest Mabouka, who never tired of powering forward from right-back, saw a cross deflected onto the bar by a Slovan defender. Three minutes later, Issiaka Bello and Dávid Guba came on as substitutes for Jakub Paur and Michal Škvarka. Bello was quickly into the action, chesting down Miroslav Barčík’s pass and hitting a waspish shot from outside the box which rebounded off the inside of the left-hand post. It might – might – have been different if one of those had gone in, but my suspicion is that Slovan would have put their collective foot down again. As well as goals, they did, after all, ‘win’ in all the relatively meaningless aspects. They had 59% of possession, forced more corners and had more shots on target than their opponents. Žilina, meanwhile, committed a lot more fouls, not that any were malicious or that the general good spirit of the contest was in any way undermined.

The benches were another reflection of where these clubs currently stand. In Bello, Žilina did bring on a fine player, and one who has terrorised Slovan in the past, but it is getting on for a year since he played 90 minutes in a competitive game. Guba, for his part, has been a major disappointment since moving from Prešov in spring. Later, 18-year-old Peter Lupčo, a ‘veteran‘ of  three previous first-team games, came on for Róbert Pich. In contrast, Slovan replaced Jiří Kladrubský with Kamil Kopúnek, scorer of a World Cup goal in South Africa, and Soumah with Juraj Halenár (over 100 Corgoň Liga goals in his career).

All who took the field for Slovan played well, but Milinković and Soumah are both players worth travelling to see. The fact that Soumah didn’t finish the game might suggest he’s still not match-fit after his six-month ban, but, as well as creating the second goal, he provided plenty of excitement during his 72 minutes on the pitch. On the losing side, 34-year-old Barčík justified Slovan coach Samuel Slovák’s recent description of him as ‘still one of the best players in this country’. Sadly for him, not enough of his team-mates responded to his promptings.

All the post-match reaction, whether from coaches or players, showed a sound grasp of reality. Both Piaček and Žilina coach Štefan Tarkovič readily admitted that Slovan were better and deserved to win. It fell to Slovák to admit that ‘we had a bit of luck when they hit the post and bar’. The Slovan coach is, I firmly belief, a genuine ray of hope for football in this country, and not only for his unfailing good grace. He was an excellent player himself, he has coached at under-21 level and he has got his current side playing attractive, disciplined, winning football. Ten days from now, he will be celebrating a league and cup double and anticipating the Champions League qualifiers. If he can keep the team together, it will be interesting to see how much further he can take it.

Slovák and Slovan have plenty to look forward to then, but their impending league title will also be good news for Žilina who will qualify for the Europa League qualifiers as cup runners-up. Their run to the final has provided relief from a largely grim league campaign. Tarkovič, who took over from the sacked Frans Adelaar during the winter, has had a difficult time, but he can’t be blamed for the result in Ružomberok. His team selection and tactics were pretty much beyond question. It was just that, in common with his players, he came up against better opposition.

James Baxter

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