All you need to know about: Slovakia

Slovakia after beating former World Champions Italy.

Tonight, Ireland travel to Zilina to take on Slovakia in the fourth round of qualification fixtures for the 2012 European Championships. With both sides losing to Russia and Armenia respectively on Friday night this game has been billed as “must win game” for both sides. Daniel Richardson, from the Britski Belasi blog is here to give us his low-down on Slovakia.

A brief history

Slovakia in its current status has been playing international football since 1994, making them an even younger nation than fellow group opponents Armenia. This year’s World Cup was their first ever as an independent Nation and was all the more well received due to the team’s qualification in place of more illustrious neighbours, the Czech Republic.

So, who is in charge?

Vladimir Weiss Sr is very popular in Slovakia.  The team’s qualification and especially the over achievement in the World Cup increased his popularity immensely.  He is a no-nonsense kind of coach and any criticism within the squad or from the press is quickly shot-down.  Weiss has created an excellent team spirit amongst his young squad who are spread far and wide throughout European football.

Weiss did a fantastic job leading Artmedia Petrzalka to the Slovak league title in 2005 and securing qualification for the Champions League group stages the following season. At the time, Artmedia became only the 2nd ever Slovak team to appear in the Champions League.  Artmedia have since collapsed completely and were even relegated from top flight football last season.

Weiss has a habit of leaving team announcements until the last minute and is also very quick to change things on the field if it’s not going to plan.

How do Slovakia line-up?

The squad for the matches against Armenia & Ireland comprises 23 players selected from 18 different clubs in 10 different countries. The only club with 3 representatives is MSK Žilina but it is unlikely if any of these will start in the first choice 11.

Champions League entrants MSK Žilina have something of a production line for goalkeepers. All 3 keepers in the current squad spent time at Žilina as did Dušan Kuciak who was in the squad for the match against Macedonia. This must be attributed to the goalkeepers coach Miroslav Seman (something in a name?!).  Everton’s Jan Mucha is the Number 1, but after a shaky performance against Armenia, will local lad Martin Dubravka be given a chance against Ireland?

Before the Armenia game, you would say that Slovakia’s strength was their solid defence.  Goalkeeper Jan Mucha said that the victory over Russia was the hardest of his career.  Mucha, Skrtel, Salata & Zabavnik all had arguably their best ever international performances against Russia. Against Armenia the opposite was true and the defence was worrying cut open by Armenia’s incisive counter attacks.  A yellow card picked up by Skrtel in Yereven will mean he misses the Ireland match.

Slovakia have been relying on the individual talent of Miroslav Stoch of Fenerbahce recently. Most of what is good with Slovakia involves Stoch.  The injury picked up in Armenia on Friday night will be a massive worry although Stoch is still in the picture for selection.  Vladimir Weiss Jr shows occasional moments of genius but he is frustratingly inconsistent and still lacking experience of first team football.  Slovakia will be looking for a significantly improved contribution from 23-year-old captain Marek Hamsik.

Goalscoring is a worry, especially without the injured Robert Vittek.  Stanislav Šesták started as the lone striker against Armenia but with a dire lack of service he came deeper and deeper absolutely defeating the purpose of Weiss’ single striker tactics.  Weiss likes to change things and leave people guessing so expect something different against Ireland.  There are several other strikers waiting in the wings, not yet proven at this level.

The venue

The Pod Dubnom stadium in Žilina, where the Ireland match will take place is the smallest venue in this season’s Champions League with a capacity of around 11,000. However, the Slovak players will be much happier to play there than the only venue currently available in Bratislava, Pasienky stadium.

Miroslav Stoch publicly criticised the stadium and the atmosphere after the Macedonia game, where around 6,000 people were present. The former National stadium, Tehelne Pole is loved by both the fans of Slovan Bratislava and the National team, but is currently closed. Demolishing works were due to start in March 2010 but work has still not started. Today the stadium is a crumbling wreck, overgrown with weeds, and a permanent sad reminder to football fans (especially those of Slovan) of former times.

Who should I be looking out for on Tuesday night?

Marek Hamšík is the national captain and is arguably the best known player since playing for Napoli in Serie A since 2007. He is admired by Napoli fans but his performances for the National side this year including at the World Cup have left Slovakia fans frustrated. He has been likened to Steven Gerrard in that he seems to perform better in a ‘free’ central attacking midfield role but Weiss often plays him on the wing.

While Hamšík is arguably the biggest name in the squad, Miroslav Stoch has been going from strength to strength for the National team and in domestic football in the slightly lesser followed leagues of Holland and now Turkey. Stoch was loaned out to Twente from Chelsea and played an integral role in Twente winning their first every Championship, under Steve McClaren in 2010. Chelsea didn’t want Stoch back and he moved to Fenerbahce where he is becoming increasingly popular with their hard-to-please fans. Stoch’s goal in the match against Russia proved his place as one of Slovakia’s most valuable attacking assets and the injury picked up in Armenia is a massive worry.  Stoch has stayed with the squad and is still in the picture for selection for the Ireland game, pending his recovery over the next 3 days.

Kamil Kopúnek who scored the winning goal in the World Cup against Italy left his former club Spartak Trnava of his own accord after the World Cup. He spent several weeks as a free agent before he was snapped up by Saturn Moscow Oblast. So far Kopúnek has made 4 appearances for the Russian outfit.

And Slovakia’s answer to the Beckhams are….?

Šebo and attacking colleague Róbert Vittek both have celebrity wives back in Slovakia. Articles indicate that neither couple is interested in becoming the Slovak Beckhams, but especially Vittek’s wife (Patricia Paris) seems to be trying her best. She has appeared on several reality TV shows and desperately wanted to make the National team record with the players before the World Cup. Šebo is dating Miss Slovakia 2006 (Magdalena Sebesdova) and they are currently planning to have a baby together.

You can also follow Daniel on Twitter @britskibelasi for regular footballing updates from Slovakia as well as many other European footballing nations.

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