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Mar 24 2013

Slovakia 1-1 Lithuania

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 James Baxter

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Mar 19 2013

Slovakia in Zilina

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

Slovakia 1 Chile 2, Friendly, November 2009

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

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

Slovakia 0 Norway 1, Friendly, March 2010

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

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

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

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

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

Slovakia 0 Armenia 4, Euro 2012 qualifier, September 2011

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

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

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

Slovakia 0 Russia 1, Euro 2012 qualifier, October 2011

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

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

James Baxter

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Mar 14 2013

Slovakia squad for Lithuania & Sweden

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Squad

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

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

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

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

James Baxter

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Mar 04 2013

Corgon Liga Round-up March 3rd

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

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

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

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

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

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

Slovan 4 Zlaté Moravce 1

Košice 3 Prešov 0

Žilina 0 Banská Bystrica 1

Trenčín 1 Myjava 0

Trnava 2 Nitra 0

Senica 0 Ružomberok 3

James Baxter

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Feb 10 2013

Slovakia Under 21s

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Wednesday may have been a mixed night forSlovakia’s senior team but it was a decidedly good one for their Under-21 counterparts. The Slovak youngsters defeated a strong Switzerland team 1-0 inValencia, thanks to a goal from Karol Mészáros, a product of the Slovan Bratislava academy who recently joined Zlaté Moravce on a half-season loan.

It is the latest in a series of fine performances from the Under-21s. Last autumn they contested a play-off for a place in the 2013 European Championship and, despite losing to Holland, played commendably in both legs. Last month, a two-match tour of Portugal produced 1-1 and 0-0 draws against the clever, technical hosts.

One lesson the young Slovaks have had to learn in recent weeks is how to cope with adversity. The squad was depleted by two distressing injuries in Portugal. Goalkeeper Dobrivoj Rusov (from Spartak Trnava) collided with a home forward while collecting an 11th minute corner in the first game and had to be substituted. He later started urinating blood and had to be rushed to hospital, where he was found to have contracted kidney damage. In the second match, Wolverhampton Wanderers forward Kristián Koštrna, a half-time sub, broke two bones in his lower leg.

Both players, naturally, remain very much in their team-mates’ thoughts. Indeed their misfortunes appear to have strengthened resolve within the squad. Much of the credit for this, and for the team’s results, is due to coach Ivan Galád, who recently completed his second year  in the post. Earlier in his career, Galád was a fine club coach, especially during his two spells with FC Nitra, when he always seemed to relish the task of plotting surprise defeats for supposedly ‘bigger’ clubs. A classic example is the 5-2 home thrashing handed out to Žilina by Galád’s side on the opening day of 2005/2006 season, still a vivid memory for many fans of the yellow and greens.

Galád has the ideal combination of intellect and practicality. He has a Phd, yet is far more down-to-earth than a lot of people who spend time preaching the virtues of ‘common-sense‘. Also, having taught in secondary schools and lectured at university, he understands the importance of communicating the right messages to youngsters. An acquaintance of mine who has spent time with the Under-21 squad could not praise Galád’s approach to his charges highly enough : ‘He knows when to be hard and when to be gentle. The players like him, but they know exactly what they can and can’t do with him. His boundaries are clear.’

The results of his approach, and not just the on-field results, appear to have surprised even Galád. ‘I was struck by how excited the lads on the bench were when Mészáros scored against Switzerland,’ he says, ‘just as I was struck by the pride all the players took in everything they did in Portugal. There’s a great spirit in this squad.’

One little illustration of Galád’s methods is his dealings with Norbert Gyömbér, Banská Bystrica’s Brescia-bound centre-back. Gyömbér had a high temperature on the morning of the Switzerland game and was withdrawn from the team as a precaution. Afterwards, Galád pointed out to him how well the Slovak defence had performed in his absence. ‘Look at how they kept a clean sheet without you,’ he said, before going onto remind the player how highly he is valued : ‘You’re part of the spine of this squad and one of the very best players we’ve got. Even your presence here was important.’

The benefits of the Under-21’s efforts can, of course, be felt elsewhere. Witness the way three of Galád’s recent charges – Lukáš Pauschek, Róbert Mak and Richard Lásik – helped transform the senior side’s display in Belgium. It’s not difficult to imagine that more of the current squad will soon be taking the big step up. And Galád himself, though there are younger coaches (he’s 49), could yet find himself in demand for bigger jobs. At present though, he seems committed to what he’s doing. The next European Championship qualification campaign will see him pitting his wits against Scotland and Georgia and attempting to go one better against Holland. The games, like Galád and his players themselves, will be well worth watching.

(The Slovak squad for the Switzerland game is listed below. In itself, it’s an interesting illustration of the different ways in which Slovakia’s young players are being developed. Twelve are with Corgoň clubs and all except the two goalkeepers have played for their first-teams on a reasonably regular basis. Kochan and Hrošovský play, respectively, in the Slovak and Czech second divisions. Two more are learning their trade in Premier League academies, while another two (Ambra and Vojtuš) are getting an early taste of foreign leagues. It’s an effective mix.)

 James Baxter

GOALKEEPERS
Patrik Le Giang (MŠK Žilina)
Tomáš Lešňovský (MFK Ružomberok)

DEFENDERS
Norbert Gyömbér (FK Dukla Banská Bystrica)
Dávid Hudák (ŠK Slovan Bratislava)
Jakub Bartek (1. FC Tatran Prešov)
Adam Ambra (U.C. AlbinoLeffe)
Róbert Mazáň (AS Trenčín)

MIDFIELDERS
Michal Škvarka (MŠK Žilina)
Jakub Paur
(MŠK Žilina)
Milan Škriniar (MŠK Žilina)
Matej Kochan (ŽP Šport Podbrezová)
Patrik Hrošovský (FK Ústí nad Labem)
Stanislav Lobotka (AS Trenčín)
Karol Mészáros (FC ViOn Zlaté Moravce)

FORWARDS
Jakub Vojtuš (NK Zagreb)
Milan Lalkovič (Chelsea FC)
Filip Oršula (Wigan Athletic)
Ivan Schranz (FC Spartak Trnava)

 

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Feb 07 2013

Belgium 2-1 Slovakia

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A fairly predictable result in Bruges and a Slovak performance which can be split into five quite distinct phases.

The first 12 minutes bordered on the catastrophic. First, the ball struck Tomáš Hubočan on the elbow inside the penalty-area. The referee awarded a spot-kick, which Eden Hazard converted. Almost immediately Róbert Vittek, making his 80th international appearance but his first for 17 months, had to be helped off the field after pulling a muscle. Martin Jakubko, the only real like-for-like replacement in the squad, had developed a fever after arriving in Belgium, so it was Michal Ďuriš who took over the lone striker’s role.

For the rest of the first-half, Slovakia were merely poor, but at least their luck improved. Belgium came at them as incessantly as ocean waves, but a combination of poor choice-making and some sturdy defending, especially from Martin Škrtel, kept the deficit to one. The visitors’ only meaningful attack of the half came two minutes from its end ; Dušan Švento whipped over an inviting left-wing cross but Juraj Kucka wasn’t balanced enough to direct his header on target.

That little contribution didn’t redeem Švento’s night. He had been tormented by Belgium’s right-sided players, by Kevin Mirallas in particular, so it was no surprise to see him replaced at half-time by Lukáš Pauschek. The Slovan youngster is a quiet, dependable type and his arrival helped make Slovakia much more secure. Other players, meanwhile, could count themselves lucky to get a prolonged opportunity. Viktor Pečovský’s first 45 minutes showed that winter warm-ups for Žilina against Podbrezova or Michalovce are less than adequate preparation for the task of tracking players like Hazard. Even Marek Sapara failed to reach his usual standards. After the break, both began to find their men with simple passes and, thanks in part to their efforts, Slovakia emerged into their competent phase. Not a lot was happening in attack, however.  Belgium were generally able to read Marek Hamšík’s attempts at killer through balls and Miroslav Stoch’s jinks inside from the left-wing. And, Ďuriš, for all his running, was still seeing little of the ball.

Then we had the really encouraging period. The key moment was probably the substitution of Stoch by Róbert Mak. Hamšík moved over to the left as the Nuremberg youngster took up a position on the right. Suddenly, the Belgium defence found themselves having to deal with a new problem ; a wide player with the pace, confidence and determination to get behind them. It was also an effort by Mak that necessitated the night’s best save. Sapara’s neat reverse pass found him in space, and his first-time shot was blocked in unorthodox fashion by Jean-Francois Gillet’s legs.

But it was yet another young substitute who scored Slovakia’s equaliser. Richard Lásik had come on for Hubočan in the 70th minute. With three minutes left, he was on the edge of the area as Belgium cleared a corner. Skillfully freeing himself from a defender’s attentions, he hit a low shot through the crowd in the box. Gillet seemed to be wrongfooted by a slight deflection as the ball entered the net.

Then, sadly, there was the final act. It would probably be unfair to suggest that Lásik got carried away after his goal, but he was certainly out of position as a diagonal pass found Dries Mertens down the left channel. Škrtel was obliged to go across and close him down, but Mertens had enough time to do what Stoch loves to do – manoeuvre the ball onto his right foot and curl it into the far corner of the net.

Friendlies don’t actually prove very much, but this one did underline something that’s been becoming clear for a while now ; thatSlovakiaare doing a decent job of developing their young players. Pauschek, Mak and Lásik all played important roles in improving the performance in Bruges. It’s probably no co’incidence that all have been key figures in the recently evolving Under-21 side.

As for moans and groans, I will never back down from the idea that Hubočan should not be moved from centre-back to accomodate Ján Ďurica, at least until Ďurica improves his distribution from the back and curbs his tendency to get involved in silly flare-ups. It’s also difficult to shoehorn Pečovský, Hamšík, Sapara and Kucka into the same midfield. Pečovský, though by far the least eye-catching of the four, is the most defensively reliable and has to play. Sapara and Hamšik have proved themselves to be international class and are also obvious selections. Shoving one of them out wide so that Kucka can play centrally does not seem like the right thing to do – at least while Kucka’s performances continue to be uneven. It’s a tricky dilemma though, as theGenoaman has drive, strength and (when he gets it right)  formidable long-range shooting power. Finally, of course, the curse of the centre-forward continues. Vittek may be fit again in time for the Lithuania game next month, but my inclination would probably be to start with Jakubko, the only recognised striker to register an international goal in 2012.

Of course,Lithuania will present a totally different challenge. For now at least, as joint-coach Stanislav Griga said after the Belgium encounter, the second-half in Bruges should make Slovakia feel good about themselves again. Though uncompromisingly honest about the first period – ‘we were as bad as against the Czechs, our movement was poor and we were half-asleep’ – Griga was encouraged by what happened after the break. Mak in particular, he added, ‘injected a current into us’. Whatever the next few months bring, Slovakia seem to have some talents to base their long-term future around.

James Baxter

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Jan 27 2013

Cvirik Sacked by Trnava

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Spartak Trnava’s season descended further into chaos this week when it emerged that defender and former captain Peter Čvirik had had his contract terminated by the club. The reason was Čvirik’s behaviour at the club ball at Trnava’s Holiday Inn on 19th January. The player was said to be ‘under the influence of alcohol’ and left the venue before 11pm. Reports in Slovakia’s tabloid newspapers have suggested that Zlatica Puškarová, a presenter with Markíza TV who was in charge of ceremonies at the event, asked Čvirik to quieten down and moderate his behaviour as early as 9pm.

The decision to terminate Čvirik’s contract appears to have been made at the request of coach Peter Zelenský. ‘Before the ball, I warned the players that they were representing the club and needed to behave decently. Everything I’ve heard since confirms that Čvirik disregarded my instructions. His actions embarrassed the club at an event where sponsors were present and, in drinking to excess, he failed to stick to the players’ winter training regime,’ Zelenský said following the announcement of the decision.

Čvirik himself appears to feel hard done by. ‘I wasn’t attending a funeral,’ he said, ‘I wanted to have a good time. I had a drink or two but I wasn’t drunk. I didn’t cause any disorder or provoke anyone.’ He goes on to suggest that there might be other reasons for his dismissal : ‘I’m not everyone’s favourite at Trnava. I’m sure there are people there who are glad I’ve been kicked out.’

A statement by the club’s co-owner Vladimír Poór, meanwhile, says that Zelenský has the final say in matters connected with team discipline and that the club backs up his stance over Čvirik. There is also an insistence that no factors other than what happened at the ball have influenced the decision. ‘We certainly have nothing at all against Peter Čvirik,’ the statement reads. ‘Indeed, we greatly value his contribution. His performances last spring in the Corgoň Liga were especially outstanding, and he has played very well in European competition too. But there has to be discipline in the dressing-room.’

The controversy surrounding Čvirik will doubtless divert attention from Trnava’s winter signings, who thus far number four. As reported earlier this month, striker Ivan Lietava has arrived from Ukrainian club Vorskla Poltava. He is joined by former Slovakia international Ivan Hodúr (from Zaglebie Lublin) and Dubnica youngsters Oliver Augustini and Martin Klabník.

David Depetris finally settled his immediate future last week, signing a three-and-a-half year contract with Turkish second-tier club Caykur Rizespor. The move was covered in great depth in Šport, with Depetris himself making the unsurprising claim that he has made it for sound footballing reasons. ‘I had offers fromRomania, the Czech Republic and Switzerland,’ he said, ‘but Rizespor’s vision appealed to me most.’ He also dismisses those who suggest that the move is not a step up from Slovak football, insisting that ‘I’ve talked to a lot of people who say that, actually, the Turkish second division is better than the Corgoň Liga’.

Another forward on the move is Slovan Bratislava youngster Karol Mészáros, who will spend the spring on loan with Vion Zlaté Moravce. Clearly, Slovan’s hope that Vion have the capacity to offer young players the ideal opportunity to develop outweighs any fear of them sustaining a serious championship challenge. Their judgement will probably be proved right ; Vion may be the Corgoň Liga’s current second-placed side, but are six points behind Slovan and have a small squad. But players such as Žilina’s Michal Škvarka and Adam Žilák have improved tremendously during loan spells with them. Mészáros, clearly a talent, should do likewise.

Banská Bystrica defender Norbert Gyömbér, like Mészáros a member of Slovakia’s Under-21 squad, should be on the move this summer, to Italian Serie A side Catania Calcio. He has been one of the most closely-watched youngsters in Slovak football for some time now, and his big step up seems overdue. Assuming the transfer does go ahead, Gyömbér will have a new centre-back partner during his final months at Bystrica, as Jozef Adámik has signed from Prešov.

James Baxter

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Jan 20 2013

David Depetris for Slovakia

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It looks very much as if David Depetris will soon be adding himself to the list of centre-forward options available to Slovakia national team coaches Stanislav Griga and Michal Hipp. The former Trenčín player – his contract ran out in December 2012 – is currently at home in Argentina (the country of his birth), but one of his first ports of call when he returns to Europe will be Bratislava, to see if his application for Slovak citizenship has gone through. ‘This is very important for me,’ Depetris told Šport, ‘I’ll be so happy when I’ve got the chance to fight for a place in the Slovak team.’

You sense too that Griga and Hipp will be happy.Slovakia’s goalscoring problems are well-documented, and are already undermining the team’s attempts to qualify for the 2014 World Cup. In Depetris, they would have at their disposal a man who has just broken the Corgoň Liga’s autumn scoring record (with 16 goals in Trenčín’s 19 league fixtures up to December), averaged over a goal a game (31 in30) as the club were promoted from the II Liga in 2010/2011, and has an overall, all competitions record in Slovakia of 94 strikes in 144 appearances.

Depetris knows where the goal is, no question about that. But we should be very careful about hailing him as ‘the answer toSlovakia’s problems’. About this time last year, I was thinkingPlzeň’s Marek Bakoš would be the man to provide the goals. He had, after all, been a reliable marksman for his club, in both the Czech league and Europe. But, despite a succession of hard-working performances, Bakoš is still without an international goal. And, unlike Bakoš, Depetris has not been tested at European level yet ; his experience since he arrived on the continent in 2007 amounts to five-and-a-half seasons in Slovakia with Trenčín, three of which were in the II Liga.

Also, while Griga and Hipp will definitely be giving Depetris’ claims very serious consideration, they may have one or two question-marks about his all-round game, and how the style of football he got used to at Trenčín compares to the way Slovakia play. Since their appointment, the joint-coaches seem to have preferred a striker who is good with his back to goal and is either mobile (Bakoš) or big and physical (Martin Jakubko). Especially against stronger teams, you can see why such a player is desirable, not only to provide an attacking threat, but to help take the pressure off the defence. Depetris has good touch and occasionally drops deep to pick up the ball, but he is at his best in and around the penalty-area. The way Trenčín have usually been set up – in a 4-3-3 formation, with two wide attackers, two creative central midfielders and lots of ‘pressing’ in the opposition half – has contributed to him getting so many scoring opportunities. There is no doubt, of course, that he is good at taking them, whether with his head (he is excellent at heading for goal) or with either foot. It is just that, at international level, the chances wouldn’t come along so often.

But of more immediate importance than any of this is Depetris’ immediate future in club football. Certainly, his efforts for Trenčin over the years mean that he owes them nothing, a fact recognised by the fans, who gave him a prolonged standing ovation as he left the field minutes before the end of December’s game against Senica, his final home appearance. He had earned the chance to move on and develop his career. But, nearly two months later, he remains without a new club. There have been discussions with Slovan Bratislava and (reportedly) with Romanian club FC Cluj. Now, according to a rumour published in Šport, Slavia Praha are interested. Reading between the lines, it appears that money is an issue and that Depetris may be pricing himself just a little too high. Of course, it is right that he should try to secure the best deal he can. Still aged just 24, and with that remarkable record, he must surely be a very attractive proposition. But he shouldn’t leave it too long. Now is about the time to start meeting and training with new team-mates, preparing for the footballing spring. Assuming the citizenship application goes through, as it should do, that is whatSlovakianeed him to be doing as well.

 James Baxter

 

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Jan 14 2013

FC Nitra Guarantee Immediate Future

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The immediate future of FC Nitra, the Corgoň Liga’s 11th placed club, was secured following an extraordinary meeting on Thursday.Nitra had been fearing for their existence since the resignation of majority shareholders Jiří Magyar and Norbert Bödör in the wake of the punishments handed to the club as a result of the ‘Seydouba Soumah affair’ last September. However, the town authority has stepped in to guarantee finance until the end of the current season.

The local mayor, Jozef Dvonč says that, as a district town,Nitraneeds Corgoň Liga football. For a long time now, the town authority has been renting the Štadión pod Zoborom to the club free of charge, as well as paying its energy costs. Now, it is offering three more forms of assistance. The first is a sum of money sufficient to keep the club operating until the end of the season. Secondly, it intends to work with the Slovak football association (SFZ) on a plan to redevelop the ground. And thirdly, it will help the club in its search for long-term investors.

After the meeting, Jozef Petráni, Nitra’s general manager, expressed relief and gratitude for the help the town is giving. ‘From the start of these problems, we’ve been saying we needed the authority’s assistance,’ he said. ‘They have acted in a responsible way, which is a real declaration of what they feel football means to the town.’ Petráni is one of three new members of theNitraboard, along with sporting director Ivan Ondruška and the town’s vice-mayor  Štefan Štefek. There is also interest in joining the board, and potential new investment, from local businessman Vladimír Vikor.

Ondruška, while admitting that ‘the clouds over the club have lifted’, is conscious that, long-term, Nitra need someone to provide the 50-60% of funds previously accounted for by Magyar and Bödör. ‘That’s definitely not going to be easy in the current climate,’ he says. Meanwhile, Magyar and  Bödör themselves say they welcome the help the town is giving the club, and insist that they too ‘will continue to support it in some way’.

Attention can now be given to playing matters. It remains uncertain who will be coachingNitracome the spring phase of the season. Jozef Vukušič had charge of first-team affairs for the last four games of the autumn, two of which were won, but he is not currently under contract and has had offers to coach inSouth Africa. Petráni is confident, though, that his services can be secured until the end of the season. Meanwhile, the start of winter training is being overseen by youth-team coach Jozef Pavlík.

As for players, Nitra are two strikers light following the recent transfers of Soumah to Slovan Bratislava and Matúš Mikuš to Austrian club FC Admira Wacker Mödling. Reinforcements are clearly needed. ‘We have to build a squad that can ensure we finish 11th at the very worst,’ says Petráni. With a three-point deduction to come into effect at the end of the campaign, that isn’t a straightforward task. Still, bottom side Trnava are being forced into exile by work on their ground, andNitra may also believe that at least one of Prešov, Banská Bystrica or Myjava could be dragged into the relegation struggle. One thing for certain is thatNitra will not be joining the battle as strangers to adversity.

James Baxter

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Jan 07 2013

Slovak Football News Jan 2013

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A round-up of some of the developments in Slovak football as 2013 begins and Corgoň Liga clubs return to training :

It is something of a Slovak tradition that at least one top division club will spend the winter break or close-season under the clouds of crisis. At present, it isNitra’s turn. Their problems began with last September’s infamous Seydouba Soumah incident, which precipitated, amongst other things, the resignation of the club’s two main shareholders. An extraordinary meeting is to be held next week at which, it is hoped, potential new backers will announce themselves. With the team struggling at the bottom of the league, a three-point deduction to come into effect at the end of the season and average attendances of just 600 or so, it is easy to see why Nitra may not be an attractive proposition. But the very best of luck to them.

At leastNitraare due some money – 150,000 Euros according to some reports – from Slovan Bratislava for Soumah’s winter transfer. At one stage last autumn, Soumah trained with Viktoria Plzeň, but they did not follow up their interest in him. When his six-month ban finally expires in mid-March, the exciting 21-year old Guinean should add to Slovan’s already formidable attacking options. He said in a recent interview with Šport that he would welcome the opportunity to apologise to Michal Mastiš, the referee he assaulted during the fateful Trnava game that led to his ban, but has no intention of making a similar gesture towards any of the Trnava players. So the next Trnava v Slovan fixture should be even more spicy than usual.

One player who will not be figuring in the Corgoň Liga this spring is Filip Šebo, whose Slovan contract expired in December. He had been out of the first-team squad since September, having said he had no intention of signing a new deal. Šebo has openly admitted that he would love to play in theUSA, but recent newspaper rumours suggest he will be crossing only the Morava river, as opposed to theAtlantic ocean, with Slavia Prague reported to be interested in signing him. Slovan have also said they will not be pursuing David Depetris, the Corgoň Liga’s current top scorer, whose Trenčín contract also ran out last month. He is said to have attracted the attention of Romanian side FC Cluj.

An interesting transfer that has been completed is Ivan Lietava’s move from Ukrainian club Vorskla Poltava to Trnava. Lietava is a big, physical striker who has redefined the term ‘much-travelled’. If he produces his best form at Trnava, the sort of performances that saw him help Žilina to the 2009/2010 Slovak title, or score 11 goals in 21 games for Dukla Praha in 2011/2012, ‘Bílí Andeli’ should have enough firepower to avoid relegation.

The first week of 2013 has also seen two clubs change coach. Zdeněk Psotka has left Senica after six months on their bench to take up a directorial role at Sigma Olomouc. Neutral followers of the Slovak game may regret this, since, after a slow start immediately following his appointment, Psotka had re-established Senica as one of the league’s best sides and as the most likely spring challengers to Slovan. His replacement is Vladimír Koník, the man who led Šamorín to a first ever promoion to the II Liga in 2011/2012.

Finally, some news concerning my local club – and it does not come as a great surprise. Žilina have sacked Dutch coach Frans Adelaar, the man appointed last April to introduce Cryuff-style ‘total football’ to central Slovakia. Adelaar safely negotiated his first nine games, guiding his team to a league and cup double at the end of 2011/2012. But this season has been harder ; two players, Tomáš Majtán and Peter Šulek, were effectively banished and several youngsters have been introduced to the first team. Results, predictably, have been mixed. The teenagers, notably midfielderMilanŠkriniar, clearly have great potential but are also susceptible to dips in form. And ultimately, the Žilina hierarchy are unable to accept a run of three wins from the last 15 games, or the idea of their side in 5th place in the league, 8 points behind Slovan.

Adelaar will be temporarily replaced by his assistant Štefan Tarkovič, whose main role until now appears to have been translating the Dutchman’s instructions from English to Slovak. In the summer, Adrián Guľa, currently in charge at Trenčín, will take over. Incredibly – we are, after all, talking about the club that sacked Adelaar’s predecessor despite a 13-game unbeaten run – Guľa has been offered a 5-year contract. He is, along with Slovan’s Samuel Slovák, one ofSlovakia’s genuinely exciting young coaches and Trenčín are naturally upset at the thought of losing him. Hopefully, he will be able to adapt to an environment where the occasional limp defeat or frustrating 0-0 draw is not seen as ‘part of the game’ or ‘an aspect of the learning process’ but as something deeply unacceptable.

Meanwhile, Adelaar’s parting words to his Žilina players were simple but wise. They were a reminder that, while Slovan are probably too far clear at the top of the league and, let’s face it, too good to be caught, there is still a trophy to be claimed. ‘I hope you win the cup,’ he told them. Hear, hear to that.

James Baxter

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