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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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Apr 29 2013

Corgon Liga Update: Slovan close-in on title

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Slovan Bratislava should confirm their 2012/2013 title over the next 14 days or so, following Saturday’s 3-2 home win over closest pursuers Senica. Four successive draws had stalled Slovan’s momentum over recent weeks, allowing Senica to close the gap to six points. It’s now back to nine with just five rounds of fixtures left to play. The important action at Pasienky was confined to the second-half. Slovan’s goals were scored by Jiří Kladrubský,  Lester Peltier and Erik Grendel. Twice they were two goals clear, but substitute Rolando Blackburn reduced the deficit on each occasion. Slovan coach Samuel Slovák is refusing to celebrate, claiming that ‘there are difficult games still to play’. Opposite number Vladimír Koník, however, believes the race is over.

Vion Zlaté Moravce made the long journey to Košice and, to everyone’s surprise, earned their first victory of the spring. Andrej Hodek and Peter Orávik were the goalscorers, to the displeasure of Košice coach Ján Kozák. ‘For the first time since I returned the club, I have the feeling my players didn’t give me everything,’ he said. Vion’s Juraj Jarábek saw things slightly differently, suggesting that, at times, his team were kept in the game by goalkeeper Martin Kuciak.

The real excitement is at the bottom of the table. Trnava sacked coach Peter Zelenský during the week, appointing Vladimír Eckhardt in his place. Eckhardt could hardly have wished for a better start to his first game than the goal Ivan Schranz put past visiting Trenčín after just 3 minutes. Later, a dreadful mix-up between Peter Čögley and goalkeeper Miloš Volešák let in Martin Vyskočil for number two. Eckhardt felt Trenčín were the better team in the second-half, but was delighted with the result, which takes Trnava above Prešov on goal difference.

Prešov are the latest victims of Nitra’s tremendous run of form (five wins in six games), losing 1-0 at home to Jozef Vukušič’s team on Saturday. Peter Struhár scored the decisive goal after 55 minutes. Even bearing in mind the three-point deduction which will come into effect at the end of the season, Nitra now look reasonably safe. Prešov are anything but, as coach Jozef Bubenko hinted afterwards. ‘We’ve lost a very important game,’ he said. He will no doubt be aware that three of his team’s last five fixtures are away from home, a daunting prospect given their miserable record on the road.

Žilina fans have spent much of the spring wondering which is the bigger mystery ; their team’s complete loss of form, especially at home, or coach Štefan Tarkovič’s bafflingselections and tactics. Things suddenly came right on Saturday, though, as visiting Ružomberok were sent back to Liptov on the wrong end of a 3-0 defeat. Long-range shooting appeared to be the key ; Jakub Paur and Michal Škvarka both hit beauties from outside the box, and Tomáš Majtan got a vital deflection to Stanislav Angelovič’s 25-yarder. The result is fairly meaningless in terms of the league, but should give Žilina confidence for Wednesday’s cup-final date with Slovan. ‘I’ll keep my fingers crossed for them,’ said Ruža coach Ladislav Šimčo.

Myjava christened their new floodlights with an 8pm kick-off against Banská Bystrica. By 10pm they were celebrating Ľubomír Urgela’s injury-time goal, which secured a vital 2-1 win. Earlier, Bystrica’s Marek Šovčik had equalised Peter Sládek’s strike. Myjava have done themselves proud all season and should be playing Corgoň Liga football again in 2013/2014. Bystrica, just three points clear of the bottom two, still have a little work to do to secure their status.

Slovan 3 Senica 2

Košice 0 Zlaté Moravce 2

Trnava 2 Trenčín 0

Prešov 0 Nitra 1

Žilina 3 Ružomberok 0

Myjava 2 Banská Bystrica 1

James Baxter

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Apr 18 2013

Slovak Cup Semis

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Slovan Bratislava and MŠK Žilina are through to the final of the Slovak Cup, to be played in Ružomberok on May 1st. Slovan enjoyed the calmer passage, winning the second-leg of their semi-final with Košice 3-1 at Pasienky on Tuesday and thus completing a 6-1 aggregate victory. The easterners did cause a minor scare in the 20th minute of the second-leg, when Peter Gál-Andrezly put them ahead on the night, but Marko Milinković quickly equalised and Marek Kuzma and Igor Žofčák (a penalty) added further goals before half-time.

Sloven coach Samuel Slovák was delighted with all aspects of his team’s display. ‘We’ve played two very good games against quality opposition,’ he said. ‘In the second-leg, I gave opportunities to some players who haven’t had a lot of games. I was especially pleased with the way they reacted after Košice scored.’ Opposite number Ján Kozák was left regretting missed chances in the first-half of the first meeting, but admitted that ‘Slovan deserve to go through, and they were certainly the better team in the second-leg’.

Žilina had a much harder time reaching Ružomberok. They controlled most of their home(first) leg against Trnava a week ago and were leading 3-1 at half-time, but a careless finish to the game ultimately resulted in Marek Kaščák reducing the deficit. In Tuesday’s away leg, Žilina restored their two-goal overall lead through Vladimír Leitner, their remarkable veteran defender, who had also scored in the first-leg. But Trnava responded quickly through Ivan Hodúr and, with 35 minutes still to play, the tie remained wide open. Žilina held on, to the obvious relief of coach Štefan Tarkovič. ‘We didn’t play for the draw but I’m happy with it,’ he said. Trnava’s Peter Zelenský felt his players misunderstood his pre-match instructions. ‘I told them not to leave themselves too open in the early stages,’ he lamented, ‘but that didn’t mean they shouldn’t attack at all. Only after Žilina scored did we start playing.’

Looking ahead, both finallists have plenty to motivate them. Slovan are going for their second league and cup double in three seasons. Žilina, for their part, will be trying both to retain the cup and make up for a truly miserable spring in the league. The yellow and greens may also be after revenge for the 2011 final, played at Banská Bystrica. On that occasion, Slovan only lifted the trophy after a penalty shoot-out, following an exciting 3-3 draw. Last season’s final was also a thriller, Žilina edging out Senica 3-2 after extra-time.

Slovan will be clear favourites this time. Slovák, an unmitigated success as coach, has his team playing attractive and (most important) winning football. There remains a suspicion that their defence can be vulnerable but, with a midfield so capable of retaining possession and an attack which poses an ever-present threat, opposition sides haven’t had many chances to test the theory out. Injuries haven’t been much of a problem for Slovan either but, just in case, they have plenty of depth to their squad.

Žilina’s problem has been that they simply haven’t found the right balance going forward. A record of two goals in their seven league fixtures this spring testifies to the fact that they either don’t create chances, or they miss them. On the plus side, they do still have a reliable defence, conceding the fewest goals of all Corgoň Liga sides. Also, they’ve tended to save their better performances for cup games, or for clashes with Slovan. Their three league games against ‘Belasi’ this season, two of which were played at Pasienky, have all resulted in honourable draws.

Finally, I’d point to one more advantage for each side. Although the final is in Ružomberok, much closer to Žilina than to Bratislava, I suspect Slovan will have the edge in the stands. Žilina’s supporters have been apathetic for a couple of years now and are unlikely to travel in formidable numbers, or offer their team much coherent backing. Slovan have had poor support at Pasienky (only 1,066 bothered to turn up to see the formalities completed againstKošice), but a cup-final should stir their fans into life.

On the other hand, Žilina have a true talisman in Leitner. At 38, this may well be his final season but he is as likely as any of his team-mates to come up with a vital goal. He hit two winners in successive matches as Žilina closed in on last season’s league title, rescued a point against Nitra last autumn when his side was down to ten men, and put goals past Trnava in both legs of this year’s semi-final. Provided he’s fit on May 1st, I’m backing Žilina.

Semi-Finals

First-leg : Košice 0 Slovan 3

Second-leg : Slovan 3 Košice 1

Slovan win 6-1 on aggregate

 

First-leg : Žilina 3 Trnava 2

Second-leg : Trnava 1 Žilina 1

Žilina win 4-3 on aggregate

 

James Baxter

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Apr 15 2013

Slovakia Looks Foward to European U17 Championship

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The draw was made last Thursday for the European Under-17 championship, to be held in Slovakia next month.

The tournament runs from 5-17 May and compromises eight teams ; Slovakia, who qualified automatically as hosts, plus seven who came through a qualifying competition. The format will be familiar from UEFA and FIFA finals tournaments. There are two groups of four, with the top two teams from each going through to the semi-finals.

Group A will be based in Žilina (ie all teams will be accommodated there), with its matches to be shared between Štadión pod Dubňom and Dubnica. Group B’s base is Senec, the location of Slovakia’s national training centre, with games to be played in Nitra and Zlaté Moravce. Both semi-finals and the final will be held in Žilina.

Based on impressions of the senior game, Group B appears to be significantly stronger. Its four sides are Croatia, Italy, Russia and Ukraine. Group A contains, besides the hosts, Austria, Sweden and Switzerland. After the draw, Slovakia coach Ladislav Pecko appeared to feel that his team had been dealt a decent hand. ‘I’d rather be facing these sides than Croatia or Ukraine,’ he said. Yet it ought tobe pointed out that Slovakia have recently lost friendlies to both the Swiss (twice) and the Austrians. Captain Lukáš Haraslín says the team lacked movement against ‘quick and technical’ Switzerland, butwas happier with the display against Austria. ‘It was an even game and was decided by the only goal. We know what their strengths and weaknesses are.’

Slovakia will clearly not be among the favourites for the competition. To have a chance of getting out of the group, they’ll need to show they have indeed learned from the recent defeats. A little good fortune and some decent support from the Žilina and Dubnica locals won’t go amiss either. If they do miss out on a semi-final appearance, third place in the group is at least a passport to the world championships, which will be staged in the United Arab Emirates in October and November.

The bases and hosting stadiums look like decent choices. It is perhaps a shame that the tournament is confined to Slovakia’s western and central regions, but reducing travelling time was clearly a consideration here, especially given that there are only three days between the last group-stage fixtures and the semi-finals. Senec, of course, has all the facilities you’d expect of a national training centre.Žilina, for its part, is used to staging international football and has also hosted under-17 club tournaments in the past, in co’operation with former playing legend Marek Mintál. Dubnica and Zlaté Moravce are small but modern venues which always offer a friendly welcome. Nitra’s ground needs a revamp but the town itself is an attractive place, with a rich history, a few sights and good pubs and restaurants.

The potential is there for an enjoyable few days in May - for players, coaches, administrators and visitors alike.

Group A (Žilina, Dubnica)

Group B (Nitra, Zlaté Moravce)

Slovakia

Russia

Austria

Ukraine

Switzerland

Croatia

Sweden

Italy

Group stage fixtures to be played on the 5th, 8th and 11th of May. Semi-finals to be played on 14th May. Final to be played on 17th May.

James Baxter

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Apr 14 2013

Corgon Liga Update 14-April

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Little has changed in the Corgoň Liga. At the top, Slovan Bratislava are freewheeling towards the title, and there is still a survival battle going on at the bottom, one which may yet draw in more teams.

Slovan drew the derby match away to Trnava on Saturday. It was a game of few chances, though Slovan are the ones who had the best chance to win it, thanks to a 66th minute penalty. Lester Peltier saw his spot-kick saved by Dobrivoj Rusov, to the relief of home coach Peter Zelenský. ‘It would have been difficult for us to get a point if they’d scored then,’ he said. The game was matched by 7,011, the biggest crowd of the spring so far. Sadly, some of the visiting fans were involved in trouble. Three of them, along with one policeman, sustained injuries.

Košice and Trenčín, the 3rd and 2nd placed teams going into the game, also drew 0-0. There was little to get excited about here, though both coaches, Ján Kozák and Adrián Guľa, were happy enough with their sides’ performances. The result leaves both trailing Slovan by ten points.

Žilina have been the league’s worst side this spring, and suffered another defeat on Saturday, 1-0 at home to Senica. Žilina were appalling for the first half-hour or so but, oddly enough, the 35th minute sending-off of left-back Ricardo Nunes seemed to galvanise them. They were on top for much of the second period, only for two Senica substitutes to fashion an 86thminute winning goal - Rolando Blackburn converting Juraj Piroška’s cross. Neither coach was satisfied afterwards. Štefan Tarkovič felt that some of his players’ approach to the first-half was ‘unworthy of the MŠK Žilina shirt’. Vladimír Koník, meanwhile, was critical of Senica’s second-half efforts. ‘It was classic Slovak syndrome,’ he said. ‘The opposition were a man down, and we let our guard drop. I can’t be happy with that.’ Perhaps a look at the table, which now shows his team in second place, will cheer him up.

Banská Bystrica left it even later to defeat Vion Zlaté Moravce, Jozef Adámik scoring the game’s only goal in injury-time after a mix-up in the Vion defence. Until then, it had been a closely-fought battle on a mud-bath of a pitch. Visiting coach Juraj Jarábek felt his team did all they could, but added that ‘you don’t often see teams losing to last-minute goals like that, even in the youth leagues’.

Prešov are one relegation-threatened side showing signs of form. They defeated Ružomberok 3-1 on Saturday. Andrej Jakovlev gave them a 13th minute lead and, following Tomáš Ďubek’s equaliser, goals from Lukáš Hruška and Ján Novák secured the victory. Ruža were forced to complete the game with only ten men when Ďubek sustained an injury just after coach Ladislav Šimčo had made his third substitution. ‘That pretty much ended our hopes of getting back into it,’ admitted Šimčo.

Myjava and Nitra met in a Sunday lunch-time fixture, and produced the weekend’s third goalless draw. As the visitors, Nitra may be the happier of the two sides with the result, the more so since it extends what could prove to be an important little unbeaten run. Myjava, for their part, have missed out on the chance to pull further clear of their opponents in the fight for survival.

James Baxter

 

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Apr 02 2013

Peter Pekarik in Berlin

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Easter is time for a break – from work, from familiar surroundings and from Žilina’s abject failure to score goals. And there are few better cities than Berlin, even in the unseasonable cold. Football-wise in Berlin, my natural inclination would probably be towards Union but Hertha v Bochum at the Olympiastadion is definitely not to be sniffed at.

Hertha have a mixed history, so the inconsistency of their last few years shouldn’t be much of a surprise. A Bundesliga title challenge (and ultimate fourth-placed finish) in 2008/2009 was followed by relegation in 2009/2010, a season in which the Alte Dame failed to win a home game after the opening day. They bounced straight back up a year later, only to go down again last season, this time after a controversial play-off with Dusseldorf. This season, though, Bundesliga II is again holding few terrors. Hertha now look like promotion certainties, and the main question appears to be whether they or Eintracht Braunschweig will go up as champions.

A date at a Hertha game also means a reunion with right-back Peter Pekarík, one of Žilina’s best players of the last decade. As soon as he broke into the MŠK side in 2005/2006, it was obvious that Pekarík was destined for bigger things. He was decisive in the tackle, had pace going forward and, most importantly, was intensely focused and dedicated to improving. He was a near ever-present in Pavel Vrba’s 2006/2007 title-winning team, and played every game of the 2008/2009 UEFA Cup group-stage adventure.

A move to Wolfsburg that winter looked just perfect initially but, as his team-mates closed inon the Bundesliga title in the spring of 2009, Pekarík fell out of favour with coach Felix Magath. He was in and out of the side over the following two years before going on loan to Turkish club Kayserispor and then, at the start of this season, being transferred to Hertha.

His international career takes in 44 appearances since his debut in 2006 and he was Slovakia’susual first-choice at right-back between 2009 and late 2012. However, he appears to have been made the principle scapegoat for his country’s non-performance in the 3-0 defeat away to the Czech Republic last November. Substituted after just 17 nightmarish minutes of that game, he hasn’t been picked for the squad since.

Pekarík’s club career, though, seems to be looking tentatively upwards again. He has been playing regularly for Hertha this spring, putting in performances more reminiscent of hisŽilina days, and saying in interviews that he appreciates the atmosphere created by the fans who, he maintains, are ‘far more passionate’ than Wolfsburg’s ever were.

The Hertha support is certainly impressive, averaging 37,000+ for this season’s second-tier home games. The figure is skewed somewhat by the turnouts for the Union and DynamoDresden fixtures (74,000 and 47,000 respectively) and the Olympiastadion is, of course, a huge venue, providing more than enough room for most of the events it stages. As a first-time visitor there, your ticket isn’t only admission to a game of football. It also lets you into a vast open-air museum. Everywhere there are sights worth lingering over, and information boards telling the story of the infamous 1936 Olympic Games. At the western end of the ground, you can stand next to the ‘horse tamer’ sculptures and look across the Maifeld to the bell tower and Fuhrer’s grandstand, before turning back and reading the Olympic honours boards. These flank the torch platform, from where you have perhaps the best view of both the arena and itsmost impressive modern addition ; the roof added for the 2006 World Cup. Simply put, this is one stadium you really should enter the minute the gates open.

There’s not much to say about the game itself. Whatever plans the relegation-threatened visitors from the Ruhr had arrived with were rendered irrelevant by Ronny’s beautifully-struck free-kick for the hosts after just four minutes. Seconds after half-time, Nico Schulz added a second goal after the Bochum defence had basically waved him through to a one-on-one with their goalkeeper. 2-0, and that, effectively, was that. Several Hertha players, most notably the scorers, centre-back Fabian Lustenberger and captain Peter Niermayer, looked way too good for second-tier football. Generally, in fact, you sensed that the home team wasin economy mode. They could have scored more goals if they’d really wanted to, but they seemed more concerned to save energy for next week’s potential title showdown with Braunschweig.

Once the final whistle had gone, it became clear that the Olympiastadion is also a place to linger after the game, to clap the players on their celebratory tour of the pitch (even after a routine win) and then to analyse the 90 minutes over a couple of pints at the refreshment stands. I don’t suppose Pekarík’s performance was the hottest of topics as the beers slipped down, but he’d acquitted himself well, always offering an outlet when Hertha moved forward down the right. He also foiled one of Bochum’s more dangerous forays when he bravely got in the way of a second-half effort from Yusuke Tasaka. When (I don’t think it’s an ‘if’) Hertha get promoted, they and Pekarík will have the same aims for next season ; to reconsolidate at the top level. Hopefully, they’ll succeed together.

James Baxter

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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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