Despite being European Championship debutants, Slovakia aren’t devoid of major tournament experience. Six years ago they reached the World Cup knockout phase, a tiny nation eliminating the defending champions with a thrilling 3-2 victory over Italy in the group stage. The current squad holds many players who were part of that 2010 team.
The whole country hopes that this team, with its solid nucleus, can replicate those heroics from South Africa – and also those from Euro 76 in Yugoslavia. It is often forgotten that the majority of Czechoslovakia’s championship-winning starting XI were from Slovakia.
Is their defence up to the task?
Only time will tell if Slovakia’s defence is prepared for the ultimate test, up against the likes of Gareth Bale and Raheem Sterling in Group B. Martin Skrtel has been an integral part of the Slovak backline for many years but has played precious little competitive football in 2016. By the time he had recovered from an injury picked up in December, he found that Jurgen Klopp had put his faith in a different centre-half partnership – bad news for Slovakia coach Jan Kozak.
Meanwhile, Skrtel’s partner in central defence, Jan Durica, is 34 and slowing down. He’s not alone; indeed, right-back Peter Pekarik, turning 30 later this year, is the youngest of Slovakia’s first-choice defensive unit. The backline doesn’t lack experience, but whether each member of it can play at the top of his game during the tournament is another question.
Without a watertight defence, Slovakia’s chances of progressing into the knockouts are seriously hampered. Good organisation at the back, combined with a reliable goalkeeper in 32-year-old Matus Kozacik, was a vital factor in the team’s successful qualifying campaign.
What they’ve learned
Slovakia must keep a cool head and stay focused. Marek Hamsik & Co. took a maximum 18 points from their first six games in qualifying, beginning with a win away at group rivals Ukraine and a memorable 2-1 victory over Spain. But then, with the prize within reach, they didn’t win any of their next three matches, unnecessarily increasing the burden on themselves to the point that they went into their final fixture needing a win to guarantee qualification.
There will be undoubtedly be difficult, high-pressure situations during the finals. It’s important that Kozak and his charges react positively when things don’t go their way. Jitters don’t help anyone.
The spirit of 2010
Nearly half of the squad know what it takes to cause a big upset as underdogs, having done over Italy in South Africa – not just Hamsik and Skrtel, but Durica, Pekarik, Juraj Kucka, Miroslav Stoch and more. These memories could be a great catalyst for another memorable participation in a major tournament, as well as providing the personal experience of what is required.
The things that could help Slovakia to make a difference at this tournament are those famous intangibles: teamwork and a never-say-die attitude. Combine that with some extraordinary performances from the standout names in their line – Hamsik in particular – and Group B could get really interesting. Their 3-1 warm-up win over Germany demonstrated as much, with Hamsik netting a beauty along the way.
Thin up top
Attacking limitations were why Slovakia stumbled over the line in qualifying, as they drew blanks in successive matches against Spain, Ukraine and at home to Belarus.
Kozak prefers to play with a lone striker, but there doesn’t appear to be a natural goalscorer within the squad at this moment in time. Michal Duris, agile and hard-working, had a goal-laden, title-winning season in the Czech Republic but he has rarely threatened opposition defenders at international level. The towering Adam Nemec had a season to forget with Willem II, featuring in just 10 Eredivisie fixtures and scoring no goals. Veteran frontman Robert Vittek – Slovakia’s all-time leading goalscorer – is injured and won’t feature in France.
The hope is that Duris can just pretend he’s wearing his Viktoria Plzen shirt and plunder goals with his usual ease.
Any attacking threat carried by Slovakia rests mostly on Hamsik’s shoulders. ‘Marekiaro’ means as much to Slovakia as Gareth Bale does to Wales: the team looks weak without his presence and struggles to carve out chances. The classy Napoli captain is one of the most active passers in the modern game: he has a lot of touches in every match and always wants to dictate play. He is also this squad’s most-capped player, top scorer and vice-captain, so his importance to the national team shouldn’t be overestimated.
At 28, Hamsik is at the peak of his powers, and Slovakia fans are eagerly looking forward to seeing some of his killer passes at Euro 2016. In March, he won a fifth Slovak Footballer of the Year award in his homeland to surpass Skrtel, runner-up for a third year in succession, and set a new record.
The hot-tempered and eccentric Kozak, something of an enfant terrible in Slovakian coaching circles, is no stranger to controversy but he has restored respect to the national team jersey since taking charge in July 2013. Slovakian supporters are proud of their national team once again.
As a great footballer himself once upon a time, Kozak has managed to fully awaken the genius of midfield maestro Hamsik. He firmly supports his players, acting almost as a father to them, and can be uncompromising at times. He’s also reluctant to experiment with the team in friendlies, which helps team unity but can hinder progress.