Archive for the 'International' Category

Feb 04 2013

Belgium v Slovakia Preview

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Slovakia play their first game of 2013 this Wednesday, taking on highly-rated Belgium in Bruges. The game continues a year-long habit of travelling to play friendlies against some of Europe’s most difficult opposition. Since Vladimír Weiss resigned as coach last January, Slovakia have faced Turkey, Holland, Denmark and the Czech Republic away from home, and Poland in Austria. Not surprisingly, the results have been mixed, but a good performance is required on Wednesday to banish memories of the last outing, a dismal 0-3 surrender in Olomouc against the Czechs.

The Slovak squad has a largely familiar look about it, with three selections standing out. One is the only newcomer, former Slovan Bratislava and Ružomberok midfielder Richard Lásik, who currently plays his club football for Brescia Calcio in Italy’s Serie B. Aged just 20, Lásik is the latest player to make the step up from Slovakia’s rapidly improving Under-21 team. Indeed, joint-coach Michal Hipp says that his nomination was based partly on excellent references from Under-21 chief Ivan Galád.

Then there are two players returning to the ranks after lengthy absences. Dušan Švento last played for Slovakia in the pre-Euro 2012 friendly away to Holland, where, as a few days earlier against Poland, he gave a decent performance on the left side of defence. His return is timely as Michal Breznaník, excellent in the October World Cup qualifiers against Latvia and Greece, is unavailable because of injury. Švento was a wide midfielder earlier in his career and has even been used by his club, Red Bull Salzburg, as a deep-lying playmaker. But Hipp and Stanislav Griga clearly see him primarily as a left-back.

Finally, and hopefully most significant of all, there is the inclusion of Róbert Vittek, an absentee since the Euro 2012 qualifier in Ireland nearly 18 months ago . Vittek is Slovakia’s top scorer of the independent era with 23 goals, and his 79 international appearances make him the country’s second most capped player behind Miroslav Karhan. Since this latest call-up, Vittek has changed clubs, moving from Trabzonspor (for whom he was in a decent spell of goalscoring form) to fellow Turkish outfit Istanbul Büyüksehir Belediyespor. Given the recent trials and tribulations of Slovakia’s strikers, Griga and Hipp will be delighted to have Vittek at their disposal again. Martin Jakubko, who did find the net during substitute appearances in Denmark and at home to Liechtenstein last autumn, will also be welcomed back ; he had to miss the Latvia, Greece and Czech Republic games because of a broken jaw.

The selections of Vittek and Jakubko mean there is no place for Marek Bakoš. He drops to the ‘reserve squad’, where he is joined by certain others who failed to convince against the Czechs, notably Marián Čišovský and Karim Guédé.  But right-back Peter Pekarík, substituted after a ghastly opening 17 minutes in Olomouc, has been ditched altogether. On a happier note, Trenčín defender Boris Godál gets a first call-up to the reserve squad, joining club-mate František Kubík.

If Belgium are as good as everyone seems to think – and there are certainly some well-known names in their ranks – Wednesday will be a difficult evening for Slovakia. But they seem to perform better when they know they’re likely to be up against it. There is general agreement that one reason they started so badly in Olomouc was because they’d allowed themselves to believe they were the favourites, and that the hosts were the side with all the problems. The memory of going 2-0 down inside six minutes should see them come out in a more determined frame of mind this time round.  And once Wednesday’s over, we can start thinking about another game where Slovakia will be favourites, and a more important game at that – the next World Cup qualifier, at home to Lithuania on March 22nd.

 James Baxter

Slovak Squad

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

DEFENDERS
Martin Škrtel (FC Liverpool)
Tomáš Hubočan (Zenit Petrohrad)
Kornel Saláta (FK Rostov)
Radoslav Zabavník (1. FSV Mainz 05)
Lukáš Pauschek (ŠK Slovan Bratislava)
Ján Ďurica (Lokomotiv Moskva)
Dušan Švento (Red Bull Salzburg)

MIDFIELDERS
Vladimír Weiss (Delfino Pescara)
Juraj Kucka (FC Janov)
Viktor Pečovský (MŠK Žilina)
Miroslav Stoch (Fenerbahce Istanbul)
Marek Hamšík (SSC Neapol)
Marek Sapara (Trabzonspor AS)
Richard Lásik (Brescia Calcio)

FORWARDS
Martin Jakubko (FC Amkar Perm)
Michal Ďuriš (FC Viktoria Plzeň)
Róbert Vittek  (Istanbul Büyüksehir Belediyespor)

 

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Nov 13 2012

Czech Rep v Slovakia Preview

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Slovakia say goodbye to 2012’s programme of international football with a friendly away to neighbours the Czech Republic on Wednesday. The game is, of course, a local derby and, since it is being played in the North Moravian city of Olomouc, not far from the Slovak border, should have a genuinely neighbourly feel to it.

The main discussion points surrounding the Slovak squad are the recall of striker Jakub Sylvestra, and Martin Škrtel’s illness. Sylvestr last represented his country in a Euro 2012 qualifier against Macedonia more than two years ago. Since then, he has had a somewhat troubled spell with Dinamo Zagreb but is currently in good form for his new club, German second-tier side Erzgebirge Aue. It is probably putting too much pressure on him to suggest that he could be the answer to Slovakia’s current goalscoring problems but, still aged only 23, his best years are surely still ahead.

Škrtel is suffering with a virus, apparently caught from his young son. His replacement in the squad is Marián Čišovský, who joins two Viktoria Plzeň team-mates in Marek Bakoš and Michal Ďuriš. Vladimír Weiss and Michal Breznaník have injury worries and are unlikely to play.

For all the local interest, you have to wonder at the point of international friendlies at this time of year, especially since club schedules in no way make allowances for them. Stanislav Griga and Michal Hipp arranged the Slovak squad’s initial together for Sunday evening in Senec but only eleven players were present. Even Žilina midfielder Viktor Pečovský, one of three Corgoň Liga players selected, would have arrived at the last minute, having just figured in his club’s Sunday fixture against Trenčín. But at least Griga and Hipp can go into the game in a fairly relaxed frame of mind. Czech coach Michal Bílek seems to have been under pressure since the day he was appointed and there has been talk that defeat to the Slovaks may see him sacked.

I wouldn’t care to see Bílek out of a job (from across the border, it’s difficult to see why he is quite so reviled) but one not so secret hope I do have for Wednesday evening is that the great and good of the SFZ look around Olomouc’s ground and feel utterly ashamed. The Andrův stadión is not the biggest or best the CzechRepublic can offer, but it is bigger than all Slovak venues bar Trnava and is better than all except (arguably) Žilina. It certainly puts Pasienky into its proper perspective. And, with a sprinkling of Sigma Olomouc players in the Czech squad, there should be something for the locals to get behind, whatever their feelings about the coach.

The Slovak squad is below :

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

DEFENDERS
Peter Pekarík (Hertha BSC Berlín)
Michal Breznaník (FC Amkar Perm)
Marián Čišovský (FC Viktoria Plzeň)
Tomáš Hubočan (Zenit Petrohrad)
Kornel Saláta (FK Rostov)
Radoslav Zabavník (1. FSV Mainz 05)
Lukáš Pauschek (ŠK Slovan Bratislava)

MIDFIELDERS
Vladimír Weiss (Delfino Pescara)
Juraj Kucka (FC Janov)
Viktor Pečovský (MŠK Žilina)
Ľubomír Guldan (Ludogorets Razgrad)
Miroslav Stoch (Fenerbahce Istanbul)
Marek Hamšík (SSC Neapol)
Marek Sapara (Trabzonspor AS)

FORWARDS
Marek Bakoš (FC Viktoria Plzeň)
Michal Ďuriš (FC Viktoria Plzeň)
Jakub Sylvestr (FC Erzgebirge Aue)

 James Baxter

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Oct 17 2012

World Cup Qualifying: Slovakia 0-1 Greece

Published by under International

So the swish new stadium inWarsaw was unable to stage Poland v England on Tuesday. Clearly, a retractable roof is of no use when you get the wrong kind of rain.  Bratislava was hit by a similarly torrential downpour. Yet Pasienky, one of European football’s direst hell-holes, a place where they couldn’t even be bothered to provide cover for more than 1,500 spectators, DID get a game. And it was the kind of game that’s just so typical of Greece. The visitors were poor. They were outplayed by an eagar, skillful home side. But, while Marek Hamšík alone missed four acceptable opportunities for the hosts, Greece scored from their only real chance. With 63 minutes gone, substitute Kostas Mitroglou found Dmitris Salpingidis unmarked on the edge of the six-yard box, Kornel Saláta having unwisely stepped forward in an attempt to catch his man offside. Salpingidis confidently swept the ball high into the net.

Joint coaches Stanislav Griga and Michal Hipp made three changes to the Slovakia side that had started Friday’s game against Latvia. Radoslav Zabavník replaced Peter Pekarík at right-back, primarily in order to intimidate Giorgos Samaras. Further forward, Juraj Kucka and Michal Ďuriš came in for Vladimír Weiss and Marek Bakoš. Kucka slotted in alongide Viktor Pečovský in a deeper midfield role, though he did roam forward at times to prove that, even at Pasienky, the fans behind the goals are never quite safe from his 30-yard projectiles. Marek Sapara was pushed up to attacking midfield, with Hamšík moving to the right, from where he frequently switched positions with lone striker Ďuriš.

The changes were not insignificant, yet they caused no lack of fluency as the team’s system continued to work well. But every possible method of failing to convert good approach play into goals was put into operation ; having shots well saved (Michal Breznaník was twice unlucky in this regard), having them cleared off the line (Hamšík), hitting the post (Breznaník again), missing the target (numerous players), and missing the ball completely (substitute Filip Hološko and Hamšík again).

Greece were uninspiring and will not try to pretend that their performance was a good one. But they had the cleverness necessary to win a difficult game. The arrival of Mitroglou, after 59 minutes, looked like a significant moment at the time because the man he replaced was Theofanis Gekas, the team‘s top goalscorer. Perhaps Slovakia were lured into thinking they had their opponents on the rack when they saw the man they’d thought would pose the biggest threat go off. Even after the goal, the Greek defence had their share of anxious moments. At the same time, they began to do the things they’re good at – defending in depth, running the clock down, engaging in theatrics and generally frustrating the opposition.

Afterwards, Stanislav Griga found some typically wise words to sum the night up. ‘That’s why Greece qualify for tournaments and do well in them,’ he said. ‘They win even when the other team is better. We played well, but we simply have to win games like that. Not lose. Not draw. Win.’

You can only win if you score goals, of course. Even after the Latvia game, Griga was expressing concern over Slovakia’s poor chance conversion rate. Once a fine international striker himself, he knows what qualities a player needs to be a good finisher, difficult though these are to teach. ‘In the penalty-area, you’ve got to be like a shark,’ he summarised.

Do Slovakia have any sharks? Perhaps Martin Jakubko, who scored twice in three substitute appearances before getting injured in the lead-up to theLatviamatch, might have shown his predatory instincts, had he been fit. What of Stanislav Šesták, top scorer in qualifying for the 2010 World Cup? It’s poignant to think that, four years ago almost to the day, two late Šesták goals turned around a game Slovakia had been losing, at home to Poland. Or Róbert Vittek, who struck four times at the finals in South Africa? Filip Šebo was spotted in the stands at the Latvia game. He might not be a lost cause at international level just yet, but he needs to start playing club football again. And to do that, he needs to either secure a move away from Slovan Bratislava, or retreat from the ridiculous wage demands he has made of the club.

That said, goalscoring is not only about strikers. Hamšík, for example, has just turned in two performances full of running and creativity. But he has somehow managed to miss eight chances in those 180 minutes. International players, especially those with eye-watering price-tags dangling from their necks, need to do a little better than that. As Griga also said on Tuesday night, getting to the World Cup is still not impossible. The team is playing better, and more attractively, than it did in the Euro 2012 qualification campaign. At the moment, though, such thoughts provide little consolation.

James Baxter

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Oct 15 2012

Slovakia 2 Latvia 1 .. World Cup Qualifying Progress ..

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Slovakia 2 Latvia 1

‘Unnecessary Drama’ was Šport’s headline the morning after this game. It is an apt summary of a contest in which Slovakia took an early 2-0 lead, had enough chances to add at least a further two or three goals, then conceded late on and had to play out the remaining minutes just to ensure the victory.

Nothing is coming easy for Stanislav Griga and Michal Hipp’s team, yet this was, in most respects, a very decent performance. The coaches had been preaching patience in the build-up, so the start was more than they could have hoped for. With less than six minutes played, Marek Sapara chipped a pass down the inside-left channel. Vladimír Weiss, running from the right, brought the ball down well, but was then himself brought down as he attempted to go round Andris Vanins. A yellow card for the ‘keeper was followed by further punishment as Marek Hamšík slotted home the penalty.

Three minutes later, Michal Breznaník, selected ahead of Radoslav Zabavník at left-back, was fouled on the edge of the Latvian box. Sapara’s curling free-kick was deflected on its way into the net, but the Trabzonspor midfielder was more than happy to claim his third goal in successive qualifying matches.

The two midfeld Mareks continued to figure prominently for the rest of the contest. Sapara hardly misplaced a pass all night and was, by common consent, the best player on the pitch. Hamšík was full of purpose, and showed some lovely touches, but should really have added more goals. Vanins denied him with a couple of fine saves, but there were also occasions when Hamšík found himself in front of goal, only to lack the anticipation or ruthlessness to finish properly.

It was a similar story with Miroslav Stoch. He saw plenty of the ball as the game wore on and Latvia were forced to commit more players forward. He worked himself into position for his trademark long-range shots on a couple of occasions, but failed to seriously trouble Vanins.

Latvia had their share of possession, but were mostly innocuous against Slovakia’s solid back four. Martin Škrtel was as formidable as usual, Kornel Saláta alongside him did little wrong, and both full-backs had sound games. The visitors did force Dušan Kuciak into one fine first-half save, and also had a goal disallowed on the stroke of half-time. It was a surprise that Maris Verpakovskis, Latvia’s best-known player and a veteran of 93 internationals (and 28 goals) didn’t make an appearance until the 80th minute. Six minutes after coming on, he lured Viktor Pečovský into an unnecessary trip on the left-hand edge of the penalty-area. The referee correctly judged that contact had been made inside the box and Verpakovskis himself chipped home the penalty, rather in the style of Antonín Panenka.

A second Latvian goal would have been a travesty, though, in truth, Slovakia held on with ease. A bigger worry than the visitors‘ attacks in those closing moments was a head injury to Škrtel – it remains to be seen if he will participate against Greece on Tuesday. Otherwise, the main question-marks concern the team’s (in)ability to take their chances. In this respect, the form of Marek Bakoš is a concern. As usual, he worked hard as the single striker. But, also as usual, he looked short of confidence when presented with shooting opportunities. After seven starts for his country, he is still without a goal. Filip Hološko replaced him after 60 minutes and looked lively enough to warrant consideration for a starting place.

And what of Pasienky and its notorious lack of atmosphere? Well, the players seemed keen to rebuild bridges in their post-match interviews. Weiss, the most vocal critic of the ground and crowd after the Liechtenstein game, said that ‘this time, the people came to support’. There are actually several reasons to be sceptical of that statement. Firstly, in the lead-up to the match, the SFZ had issued the squad with a frankly hilarious list of instructions for how to deal with certain questions from the media. Pasienky was one of the topics covered ; rather than describe it in negative terms, players are now to say that, as professionals, it doesn’t much matter where they play but that they welcome the prospect (such as it is) of a new national stadium. Clearly, Weiss’s words were largely the unconvincing product of these first lessons in diplomacy. In any case, only 4,012 could be bothered to turn-up for the game and, while there was no audible criticism of the players, there wasn’t any real atmosphere either, other than that created by 25 or so valiant Latvians at the front of the main stand. Finally, of course, the team’s start to the game meant that getting on their backs would have been even more unreasonable than it was against Liechtenstein.

So Pasienky is not acquitted. As for the team, they passed their Latvia test, at times with style, but a far sterner one awaits when the Greeks arrive on Tuesday.

James Baxter

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Oct 10 2012

Previewing Slovakia v Greece & Latvia

Published by under International

If their comments following the Liechtenstein match last month are anything to go by, there are probably a few Slovakia players who aren’t much looking forward to stepping out at Pasienky again. But step out there they must, and twice in four days at that. On Friday (October 12th), they take on Latvia in Group G of World Cup qualifying. Greece, the group’s joint leaders after the first two rounds of fixtures, follow next Tuesday.

Over the last few days, there has been both good and bad news for Slovakia’s joint coaches Stanislav Griga and Michal Hipp. The good news, which arrived last Friday, is that Viktor Pečovský has had his two-game ban for being sent off in Lithuania halved by FIFA’s disciplinary commission. Having already missed the win overLiechtenstein, the Žilina midfielder is now eligible to face the Latvians.

The bad news concerns two Russia-based members of the squad, Tomáš Hubočan and Martin Jakubko. Centre-back Hubočan is currently in a St Petersburg hospital with an undiagnosed stomach illness, while striker Jakubko sustained a fractured jaw while playing for Amkar Perm at the weekend. Hubočan has not yet been ruled out of the Greece game but Jakubko is likely to be on the sidelines for several weeks. Filip Hološko and Róbert Jež have been called up to the squad.

Griga and Hipp’s original selection showed just two changes from the squad they nominated for the Lithuania and Liechtenstein games. Goalkeeper Ján Mucha is still in self-imposed exile and has been replaced in the squad by Slovan Bratislava’s Matúš Putnocký, though the coaches have unequivocally stated that Dušan Kuciak is now their first choice in goal.

Another Slovan player, full-back Lukáš Pauschek, has been released to the Under-21s, who have a big game of their own on Thursday ; the first leg of their European Championship qualifying play-off against Holland. Coming in in his place is (he says with weary sigh) Ján Ďurica. Ďurica’s international career seems to ‘progress’ in endless circles. Due to injury, or loss of form or favour, he has a longish lay-off. Then he returns and has a stormer of a first game back, treating his immediate opponent much as a rottweiler treats a rag-doll. This is followed by a series of steadily deteriorating performances, the last of which sees him scoring an own-goal, making a fatal defensive error of some sort, or generally getting the run-around from a small, nimble striker. He’s then left out again. If the cycle repeats itself this time, he’s at least due a big game against the Latvians.

Ďurica may still be sporting a black eye, sustained in his latest appearance for Lokomotiv Moscow, but he is indeed the likeliest partner for Martin Škrtel at centre-back on Friday. His advantage over Kornel Saláta, the other central defender in the squad, is that he is naturally left-sided, and thus compliments Škrtel, who prefers the right. Peter Pekarík and Radoslav Zabavník will probably continue as the full-backs.

Marek Sapara impressed Hipp when lining up for Trabzonspor at the weekend and is sure of one of the deeper midfield positions. Pečovský is probably the slight favourite, over Ľubomír Guldan, to partner him. Guldan deputised for Pečovský against Liechtenstein but, through no fault of his own, his performance proved little. He followed the tactical instructions by holding a position just in front of the defence and playing the simplest pass when the ball came to him. The problem was that Liechtenstein lacked the quality and attacking ambition to test out his defensive qualities.

Miroslav Stoch and Marek Hamšík will definitely form two-thirds of the attacking midfield trio. Weiss may well join them, though Viktoria Plzeň’s Michal Ďuriš has made a positive impression in his appearances so far. Up front, I suspect that Griga and Hipp would have opted for Jakubko, had he been fit. He has shown signs of a goalscoring instinct since his return to international football in August and is dangerous at set-pieces, an important consideration when games are likely to be tight. In his absence, Marek Bakoš, more effective with his back to goal than Hološko, is likely to get the starting place.

In an interview published this morning, Griga refused to say how many points he believes Slovakia need from the coming two games. Before the start of the campaign, I would have targeted ten from the four autumn fixtures. But that assumed a win in Lithuania. In reality, the unfocused start the team made to that game, together with Pečovský’s unfortunate dismissal, led to the Slovaks having to settle for a draw against the limited-looking hosts.Latvia at home is very much in the ‘sort of game you have to win’ category, while a draw against the Greeks would still be an acceptable result. If either of the coming games is lost, though, qualification will start to look a tall order, especially as only two home fixtures will be left to play in 2013.

But the most interesting questions around theLatvia and Greece games concerns Pasienky. How will the home players respond to playing at a ground they’ve expressed such a dislike for? How will the paying public respond to the team after being criticised by Weiss and others for lack of support at the Liechtenstein match? Will the surroundings deflate the Latvians and Greeks even more than they do the Slovaks. I’m going to theLatvia game, so I’ll be able to supply the answers partly from first-hand experience. Let’s hope there’s something positive to report….

 Slovakia Squad

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

DEFENDERS
Peter Pekarík (Hertha BSC Berlín)
Ján Ďurica (Lokomotiv Moskva)
Martin Škrtel (FC Liverpool)
Tomáš Hubočan (Zenit Petrohrad)
Kornel Saláta (FK Rostov)
Radoslav Zabavník (1. FSV Mainz 05)
Marek Čech (Trabzonspor AS)

MIDFIELDERS
Vladimír Weiss (Delfino Pescara)
Juraj Kucka (FC Janov)
Karim Guédé (SC Freiburg)
Viktor Pečovský (MŠK Žilina)
Ľubomír Guldan (Ludogorets Razgrad)
Miroslav Stoch (Fenerbahce Istanbul)
Michal Breznaník (FC Amkar Perm)

Róbert Jež (Zaglebie Lubin)
Marek Hamšík (SSC Neapol)
Marek Sapara (TrabzonsporAS)

FORWARDS
Marek Bakoš (FC Viktoria Plzeň)
Michal Ďuriš (FC ViktoriaPlzeň)

Filip Hološko (Besiktas Istanbul)

 

James Baxter

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Sep 13 2012

Slovakia’s Start to 2014 World Cup Qualifying Campaign

Published by under International

Lithuania 1 Slovakia 1 (Vilnius)

Slovakia 2 Liechtenstein 0 (Pasienky, Bratislava)

Not the six points Slovakia wanted from these two games, and not the most convincing performances either.

The Lithuania game can be divided into three quite distinct phases. First, there was the opening 25 minutes, where the Slovaks were slow and careless, allowing Lithuaniato take almost complete control. Ján Mucha’s error which resulted in the home side’s 14th minute goal was symptomatic of the whole team’s start to the encounter. The goalkeeper was too late  making up his mind to come off his line to claim a long free-kick, and was thus comprehensively outjumped by the scorer, Marius Žaliukas.

In the middle third, by contrast, Slovakiamade Lithuanialook very ordinary. Marek Bakoš had a goal wrongly disallowed for offside (he was a good yard in front of the last defender as Marek Hamšík played the perfect through ball to him). Then, just before half-time, Marek Sapara found the net with an effort not even these officials could find anything wrong with. The second-half began with Slovakia still on top, but they were set back on their heels by Viktor Pečovský’s 60th minute red card. I’m bound to say this I know, but the Žilina midfielder was desperately unlucky ; he slipped on the artificial turf as he moved into make a challenge and couldn’t help going to ground right in his opponent’s path. Even if the referee couldn’t see this, the foul was never worthy of a sending-off, especially considering that Radoslav Zabavník had earlier gone unpunished for a wild hack at a Lithuanian’s shins, and the home left-back wasn’t carded for a two-footed lunge at Michal Ďuriš.

The last half-hour was a cagey affair. Sapara andHamšík,Slovakia’s best players on the night, began to limit their forays forward from midfield, and Miroslav Stoch was withdrawn in favour of the more defensive-minded Michal Breznaník. For their part, Lithuania didn’t look dangerous until a late flurry of pressure in injury-time. Still, the draw will only begin to look like an acceptable result forSlovakiaifBosniaandGreecealso start to drop points in games they should win. At present, that looks like quite an ‘if’.

The Liechtenstein game saw Stanislav Griga and Michal Hipp make four enforced changes. Mucha withdrew from the squad afterLithuania, saying he didn’t want to give the coaches the dilemma of whether or not to stick with him. Dušan Kuciak took his place. Tomáš Hubočan had some ‘muscle tightness‘ so Kornel Saláta partnered Matin Škrtel in defence, Ľubomír Guldan replaced Pečovský and Vladimír Weiss Junior took over from broken-toe victim Ďuriš.

Liechtenstein were, as anyone would have predicted, desperately short of both quality and ambition. Their approach to the game was perhaps understandable in the light of their 1-8 loss to Bosnia four days earlier but, coupled with Slovakia’s now familiar struggles in front of goal, it made for painful viewing.

Bakoš was again unlucky early on, having two decent efforts well-saved. Once Liechtenstein had got through the opening 15 minutes or so, they began to look more assured and the Slovaks more anxious. Five minutes before half-time, though, the jeers of the scattered 4,000 inside Pasienky were silenced when Weiss got to the bye-line and pulled back the perfect pass for Sapara. His first shot was saved but, despite being off-balance, he skillfully steered home the rebound. Seconds later, Hamšík thumped a header against the crossbar.Slovakia’s second-half display put one in mind of a sleeping dog which wakes occasionally to bark before putting its head down again.Liechtenstein, meanwhile, seemed perfectly content to keep the score at 1-0. The home side finally sealed the points ten minutes from time when Hamšík’s through ball found Stoch. His chip had the ‘keeper beaten and the ball was just crossing the line when Martin Jakubko followed up to make sure. Stoch clearly wanted this goal, at least if the look on his face when Jakubko was announced as the scorer is anything to go by.

With all due respect, individual players can’t really be judged on a performance againstLiechtenstein. Certainly, Kuciak, Saláta, and even Guldan (who concentrated on doing the simple things just in front of the defence) were largely untroubled, Weiss and Stoch were lively at times but frustrating at others, while Bakoš really really needs a goal. If it’s not goalkeepers denying him, it’s the woodwork or referees. Hamšík was excellent again, though. His recent international form has totally changed my perception of him and I really can see now why ridiculous sums of money are sometimes mentioned in connection with his name.

Hamšík’s thoughts on the latest Pasienky experience are not on record but Weiss is not hiding his feelings. Here, translated word for word, is what he said after the Liechtenstein game :

‘It’s embarrassing that so few people came to an international game and that half of them jeered us. We players are fine, we look after each other. People have to realise that we are playing for them. We need them to encourage us, not whistle us from the third minute.

Sometimes, there are games where opponents come to defend, but that’s no reason for people to behave like that and have a go at us. They have very quickly forgotten what we did two years ago when we got to South Africa.’

He is right of course, but I wonder how different things will be when he and his team-mates are back at this ground in October. The Latvia and Greece games will be hard, yet, given the dropped points in Lithuania, Slovakia need at least a win and a draw from them. That would be more achievable with the kind of togetherness between players and fans that Pasienky is so inconducive to.

 James Baxter

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Sep 06 2012

Previewing Slovakia’s World Cup Qualifiers

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11 months after they last saw competitive action, Slovakia face two World Cup qualifiers in four days over the coming week, away to Lithuania (in Vilnius) on Friday and at home to Lichtenstein next Tuesday. Given the nature of Group G – it looks like one of those where any team is capable of beating any other – you feel the Slovaks really need maximum points from these games. Yet if they do achieve that, there’ll be a definite feeling of ‘job well done’, whatever the scorelines. In fact, recalling the toil and trauma of the Euro 2012 campaign, I’d say that two 1-0 wins would do very nicely indeed.

I think we can safely say that whatever team Stanislav Griga and Michal Hipp send out for these games, it will be in a formation closely resembling 4-2-3-1. Unlike Vladimír Weiss, who could be quite an experimenter in friendlies, the joint coaches have not varied their tactics much in their short time in charge. On the other hand, they have tried out several players, so it is difficult to make a good guess at Friday’s (let alone Tuesday’s) starting XI. I’ll run through some of the possibilities below :

Ján Mucha looks to be re-established as the first choice goalkeeper, the more so since he’s actually seen some first-team action at Everton recently. But the fact that he keptSlovakiain the game with some fine first-half saves againstDenmarklast month may mean more to Griga and Hipp than a Carling Cup clean sheet against Leyton Orient.

There is little doubt too about the centre-back positions, where Martin Škrtel and Tomáš Hubočan are the best pair available toSlovakia. The former is the new team-captain and is naturally right-sided, the latter is perfectly happy on the left. There may be minor concerns over Škrtel’s Liverpool form but he has long been one of the national team’s classiest performers. He even has the advantage of having recently played against two members of the Lithuanian side, the Hearts pair of Marius Žaliukas and Arvydas Novikovas.

Things are more complicated at full-back. Right-back Peter Pekarík was unconvincing against the Danes and has recently been undergoing upheavals at club level, returning to Wolfsburg from a loan spell in Turkey with Kayserispor, then being sold to Hertha Berlin. He may need a rest, in which case I would replace him with the versatile, experienced Mainz player Radoslav Zabavník. By contrast, Slovan Bratislava’s Lukáš Pauschek had a promising debut on the left against the Danes and deserves another chance, though the fit again Marek Čech is also an option.

The deep midfield roles see even more players vying for places. For me, Marek Sapara simply has to start. He is the best passer of the ball in the squad in terms of both range and accuracy and looked back to his best in Denmark after a long injury lay-off. Alongside him, I would have Žilina’s Viktor Pečovský. One reason for this – it must be admitted – is pure favouritism. I love watching Pečovský in the Corgoň Liga, where what usually seems to happen is that the opposition pass the ball to him and he passes it to the nearest team-mate. It won’t look quite so easy at international level, but I’d still say Pečovský is the man with the positional discipline and the defensive instinct to best watch Sapara’s back. Juraj Kucka, Karím Guédé and Ľubomír Guldan are the other alternatives. The latter two are both deserving of an opportunity but Kucka’s clumsy, indisciplined showing in Denmark means he would be very fortunate to start in Vilnius.

The attacking midfield trio looks a little clearer-cut. Miroslav Stoch, Marek Hamšík and Vladimír Weiss Junior are all young, talented and used to each other’s games. Stoch and Hamšík seem to get better and better and are definite selections. Weiss is the one with something still to prove. For all his skill, he remains frustratingly inconsistent and prone to taking wrong options. He should, and probably will, start on Friday but if he becomes infuriating, as he did in Denmark, Plzeň’s Michal Ďuriš would be a decent replacement. Michal Breznaník of Slovan Liberec is another good attacking midfielder, especially down the left.

Griga and Hipp have only picked two out-and-out strikers. The fact that they have similar styles of play makes it more likely still that only one will start in Lithuania. Marek Bakoš, another Plzeň player, has scored plenty of goals for his club in European football, most recently the winner against Lokeren which took them to the Europa League group stage. In his four Slovakia appearances to date, however, he has been hard-working but rarely looked like finding the net. Martin Jakubko, the other striker, came out of international retirement for the Denmark game, came on as a substitute and scored with his first touch of the ball. Like Bakoš, he is good with his back to goal, though he tends to rely more on an imposing physique and a little less on touch than the Plzeň man.

The ground in Vilnius has an artificial pitch, which might give Bakoš a slight edge over Jakubko, though the latter is used to such surfaces from Russia (he plays for Amkar Perm). The pitch is another good reason to opt for the likes of Sapara and Pečovský and may also be to the liking of Stoch, Hamšík and Weiss. We must then hope that Pasienky is in at least a reasonable condition for the Lichtenstein game….

My starting XI for Lithuania (and if they play well, they can stay in for Lichtenstein) :

Mucha (Everton) – Zabavník (Mainz), Škrtel (Liverpool), Hubočan (Zenit St Petersburg), Pauschek (Slovan Bratislava) – Pečovský (Žilina), Sapara (Trabzonspor) – Weiss (Pescara), Hamšík (Napoli), Stoch (Fenerbache) – Bakoš (Plzeň)  

James Baxter

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Aug 22 2012

Slovakia Persist with Pasienky

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I’ve got my ticket for the Slovakia v Latvia World Cup qualifier on October 12th. If you want to join me, you’d better act fast to avoid the rush. Actually, the point of this is less to advertise the attractions of Slovakia v Latvia than to explain why this is the only one of Slovakia’s three home autumn qualifiers I’m going to.

Essentially, the reason is that the Lichtenstein, Latvia and Greece games are all to be played at Pasienky (in Bratislava) and I refuse to make more than one six-hour round-trip to visit that sorry excuse for a football stadium, especially when the perfectly decent, and big-game proven, MŠK Žilina ground is just a ten-minute bus ride from my house.

I should say here that, while there are people who have had genuinely bad experiences at Pasienky (ask Stuttgart or Paris St Germain fans), I’m not one of them. I’ve been there four times, once to see Slovakia in a pre-World Cup friendly against Costa Rica and three times to see Slovan. The worst thing that’s happened to me on any of those trips was a late Filip Šebo winner for Slovan against Zlaté Moravce in April 2011 which helped put the skids under Žilina’s Corgoň Liga title challenge. Otherwise, I’ve always been among friends, the welcome has been friendly and the food (try the chicken steaks) has been first-rate. At the Slovan v Salzburg Europa League game last December, we were even sold hot wine, just the thing for a cold mid-winter night. As warming as the drink was the serving-girl’s enigmatic smile as she claimed not to have heard about UEFA’s alcohol regulations.

But another important reason I’ve always left Pasienky in at least an equable mood is that the weather’s always been good. Even the night of the Salzburg game was dry. If it rains, however, the place must become a genuine hell-hole. It has around 11,500 seats, all of them miles from the pitch. 10,000 of these are uncovered and I’m convinced that even the 1,500 or so non-VIPs in the main stand aren’t totally sheltered from the elements ; the structure is ageing and there must be leaks in that roof.

Finding people who actively like Pasienky is hard. Those who’ve only been once or, like me, have only been in dry weather might say it has ‘character’. It does, but so does my in-laws’ garden and no’one is suggesting that would be a good place to stage international football.  Inter Bratislava, who used to call Pasienky home, struggled to draw big crowds there, even when they were winning championships. As for Slovan, the current tenants, their fans hate the place with a passion. Players never have a good word to say about the ground either, hardly surprisingly considering that they have to make a long trek across an athletics track to get from dressing-room to pitch and back, that the surface is bumpy and cuts up and that, even on the rare occasions when there is a good crowd in, there is very little atmosphere.

So why are Slovakia playing there? We all know that the country has no national stadium at present but Žilina would be a more suitable venue for theLatviaandGreecegames, while Michalovce, a smaller but well-appointed ground in the east of the country, could probably have managed the Lichtenstein fixture. I suspect (and I stress that I have no verification of this) that Pasienky is being used because it is not owned by a club and thus the SFZ get to hire it on the cheap, an important consideration given their well-publicised financial problems.

Another reason, though this would be universally denied, may be that Pasienky has been a curiously lucky venue for Slovakia in the past, while Žilina has brought almost no luck at all. In Euro 2012 qualifying, the home team gained maximum points from its two Pasienky fixtures (against Macedonia and Andorra), compared with a damaging record of one point from three games in Žilina, where Ireland, Armenia and Russia were the opponents. Of course, these records could be put down simply to the relative abilities of the teams concerned. Even so, I have a sense that Armenia and Russiain particular might have found life harder at Pasienky, if only because primitive playing conditions can have subtly deflating effects on good sportsmen, and on visitors more than hosts. It will be interesting to put this theory to the test whenGreece, the best of the three sidesSlovakiaare about to face, are in town.

But a European nation that took part in the last World Cup finals should not be using sub-standard facilities to defeat the opposition, it should be hosting them at shiny, appropriately-sized stadiums. The people who pay good money to come along and support should not have to pack their binoculars so that they’ll be able to see the pitch, nor should they have to worry about catching pneumonia. They should be able to concentrate on creating a decent atmosphere. If and when Slovakia finally gets a ground like this in Bratislava, I will happily go to as many games as I can there. Until then, though, let’s just stop embarrassing ourselves. Let’s give up on Pasienky.

James Baxter

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Aug 17 2012

Denmark 1-3 Slovakia

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A little late but I thought I’d offer one or two reflections on Slovakia’s 3-1 victory over Denmark in Odense on Wednesday. Those interested enough to be reading will probably know the details of the match ; Slovakia were 1-0 down at half-time, to Jakob Mikkelsen’s goal, but came back in the second period thanks to strikes from Martin Jakubko, Marek Hamšík and Ľubomír Guldan.

 

The result looks excellent but, as joint coach Stanislav Griga has been quick to remind us, not too much heed should be paid to it. Slovakia were totally outplayed in that first half and couldn’t have complained if they’d gone in at the break three or four goals down. Ironically enough, the goal they did concede was unfortunate. Tomáš Hubočan’s attempted clearance bounced off Jakob Mikkelsen in such a way that the forward found himself one on one with Ján Mucha. He finished without fuss.

 

One point Griga rightly emphasised was that Denmark were weakened by their half-time substitutions. In a competitive game, they would never have taken their foot off their opponent’s throat in such a way. It should also be said, however, that Slovakia were much improved after the break, from a side ‘lacking movement and aggression’ (Griga’s words)into one that at least started getting the basics right. One noticeable change was in the ‘pressing’ game. Whereas the Danes’ defensive players were easily able to move the ball forward in the first-half, in the second they were quickly closed down by Slovak attackers.

 

Then there were the substitutions made by Griga and Hipp themselves. The introductions of Viktor Pečovský (for Juraj Kucka), Michal Ďuriš (for Vladimír Weiss) and, fifteen minutes after half-time, of Jakubko for Marek Bakoš all improved the team’s game. Pečovský, a predominantly defensive midfielder, helped the balance of the side. By patrolling the area in front of his defence and keeping things simple, he gave Marek Sapara the confidence he needed to concentrate on creativity. Ďuriš was more direct than the tricky but often frustrating Weiss, while Jakubko offered a slightly more intimidating physical presence up front than Bakoš.

 

The goals were simple but well-worked. Seconds after he came on, Jakubko muscled his way towards the near post to head home Sapara’s free-kick for the first. Miroslav Stoch played a one-two with Martin Škrtel and crossed for Hamšík to head in the second, and Guldan (on as a late sub for Hamšík) touched in another Sapara cross to round things off.

 

What were the individual positives and negativesPečovský can be delighted with his international debut, as can Ďuriš, while Jakubko’s return was clearly a success. Hamšík was decent enough in the first-half, the team’s few forays forward coming through him, and got better after the break. Lukáš Pauschek, another debutant, who played the full 90 minutes at left-back, also did well. He will probably not be first-choice when the likes of Radoslav Zabavník and Dušan Švento return but offers good cover in his position and looks like an international player of the future. The best player, though, was probably Sapara. Besides setting up two of the goals, he linked defence and attack superbly in the second-half.

 

The main concern surrounds Kucka. The starting selection, which didn’t include a defensive midfielder, may not have helped him. He and Sapara sometimes seemed unsure which of them should go forward and which would stay back. But, whereas Sapara was reliable with his passing, even when the team as a whole wasn’t functioning, Kucka seemed to be trying too hard to make things happen, and often gave the ball away. He also concedes too many needless free-kicks. Weiss too was prone to his old habit of not knowing when to pass and when to take his man on.

 

The win will be welcome ahead of the start of World Cup qualification, as will the goals – the first to be scored under the Griga and Hipp regime. Perhaps the most heartening thought, though, is that the coaches are not men to be seduced by flattering scorelines. They will not let their players get away with the kind of performance they produced in the first 45 minutes in Odense.

James Baxter

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Aug 07 2012

Slovakia Squad for Denmark

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Below is the squad chosen by Slovakia’s joint coaches Stanislav Griga and Michal Hipp for the friendly away to Denmark, in Odense next Wednesday (August 15th).

Squad

GOALKEEPERS: Ján Mucha (FC Everton), Dušan Perniš (Pogoň Štetín), Dušan Kuciak (Legia Varšava)

DEFENDERS: Peter Pekarík (VfL Wolfsburg), Kornel Saláta (FK Rostov), Tomáš Hubočan (Zenit Petrohrad), Martin Škrtel (FC Liverpool), Lukáš Pauschek (Slovan Bratislava), Radoslav Zabavník (1. FSV Mainz 05)

MIDFIELDERS: Juraj Kucka (FC Janov), Michal Breznaník (Slovan Liberec), Marek Hamšík (SSC Neapol), Vladimír Weiss ml. (Delfino Pescara), Miroslav Stoch (Fenerbahce Istanbul), Róbert Mak (1. FC Norimberg), Viktor Pečovský (MŠK Žilina), Ľubomír Guldan (Ludogorec Razgrad), Marek Sapara (Trabazonspor AS)

FORWARDS: Marek Bakoš (Viktoria Plzeň), Martin Jakubko (FC Amkar Perm)

Reserves

GOALKEEPERS: Marián Kelemen (Slask Wroclaw), Marián Kello

DEFENDERS: Ľubomír Michalík (Carlisle United), Jozef Piaček (MŠK Žilina), Ján Ďurica (Lokomotiv Moskva)

MIDFIELDERS: Tomáš Hučko (Dukla Banská Bystrica), Tomáš Kóňa (FK Senica), Kamil Kopúnek (Slovan Bratislava), Roman Procházka (PFC Levski Sofia), Karim Guédé (SC Freiburg)

FORWARDS: Michal Ďuriš (Viktoria Plzeň), Ivan Lietava (FC Vorskla Poltava), Stanislav Šesták (Bursaspor), Erik Jendrišek (SC Freiburg), Filip Hološko (Besiktas Istanbul)

There are obviously several observations you could make about these selections. There are three newcomers to the squad ; Pauschek, Mak and Pečovský. The first two are getting their chance partly because they have been two of the best performers, and biggest personalities, in the Under-21 team. It is possible, however, that Pauschek would have had to wait a little longer were it not for injuries to two other left-backs, Marek Čech and Dušan Švento. Even Radoslav Zabavník, who has made the squad and can play at left-back, is said to be carrying a knock. Griga and Hipp will be consulting with Mainz during the next few days over whether or not he should play. Mak, an exciting attacking player has been carefully managed by Nuremberg and this looks a good time to see what he might do at senior international level.

Pečovský’s nomination is a reward for his outstanding form for Žilina over the last year. As always, there is a question mark over whether someone who has only played league football in Slovakia will cope with the international game. Still, as Griga points out, Pečovský was one Žilina player who didn’t disappoint during his side’s Champions League defeat to Hapoel Ironi Kirjat Shmona last month. It is also true that Slovakia are looking for the right man to play the holding midfield role. It is debatable whether Pečovský will emerge as the outstanding candidate but he is at least another alternative.

The biggest surprise is the return of Martin Jakubko, who announced his international retirement following the 2010 World Cup. He had an excellent spell for Banská Bystrica last autumn and then signed for Russian club Amkar Perm, where he continues to perform well. Griga reveals that Hipp has been in regular contact with the striker over a possible comeback. Jakubko is 32 now, but, with his ability to play with his back to goal and occupy defenders, he may have a decent couple of years left in him.

Some prominent names are missing from the main squad, notably Karim Guédé, Stanislav Šesták, Erik Jendrišek and Filip Hološko. The omission of the last three, all forwards, is all the evidence you need to know that Slovakia have been struggling painfully for goals for some time now. Guédé has not convinced in his international career to date but he finished last season in decent form for Bundesliga side Freiburg, and his chance will surely come again. The players I would consider most unfortunate to be left out are Roman Procházka and Tomáš Kóňa, both of whom had decent games as substitutes in the last friendly, away to Holland in May. It could be that Procházka is being given a break to adjust to his recent move to Levski Sofia. Meanwhile, Kóňa’s club, Senica, have endured a difficult start to this season, though his own form seems to be holding up reasonably well.

Griga, Hipp and SFZ can hardly be accused of giving their players an easy schedule of friendlies. Since the last game in the Euro 2012 qualifying campaign,Slovakia have faced Turkey and Holland away and Poland on neutral territory.  The Denmark game hardly represents a drop in the level of difficulty. There is a fairly recent reference point too; Slovakia hosted the Danes in another friendly, in Trnava, just 17 months ago. They lost 2-1 and will hope to avoid a repeat of the first two minutes of that game, when Kornel Saláta’s own goal got the visitors off to a flying start. The rest of the contest, by contrast, saw the sort of performance the coaching team would surely settle for next Wednesday.  

James Baxter

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