Experience and Unity Key for Slovakia Euro 2016

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Even before the tournament has begun, many pundits and fans have already written off Slovakia Euro 2016 team as Group B‘s whipping boys—underdogs with little to play for. However, the same was said of Costa Rica prior to the 2014 World Cup, and without the pressure, they stunned many. Slovakia could very well prove to be a surprising entity at Euro 2016—then again, the inevitable may happen, with the team bowing out at the first hurdle.

European Championships History

Slovakia have few world class players to boast about. Only regaining its full independence in the mid-90s, its sporting history is not as rich as most of their competitors this summer. As an independent nation this will only be their second major tournament appearance, and their first at a European Championships, meaning their 23-man squad will have the opportunity to make history and a name for themselves back home.
As part of Czechoslovakia under the former Communist rule, the side was victorious in claiming the 1976 European Championships title, but many of the stars of that era came from what is now Czech Republic, rather than the Slovak region such as Antonin Puc, Josef Masopust and Antonin Panenka.

Euro 2016 Qualifying

In a group including current holders Spain and one of Ukraine‘s best sides in years, Slovakia gained automatic qualification to Euro 2016, by finishing in second position, collecting seven wins from their ten matches, losing just twice. They began their qualifying campaign in impressive form, beating Ukraine in Kiev—which has been a fortress for them in recent times—before pulling off one of the more shocking results of the qualifiers, beating Spain 2-1 in Zilina in front of just 9,000 fans. A late strike from Miroslav Stoch secured the three points, but more importantly a historic victory for such a small nation. Buoyed by their efforts against Spain, Slovakia went on to win their next four qualifiers, making it six wins from six matches, placing them rightfully so at the summit of Group C.

Defeat in Spain in the return fixture followed with a 2-0 scoreline, shortly before drawing 0-0 with Ukraine and losing to lowly Belarus at home. Slovakia stumbled over the finish line by beating Luxembourg 4-2 in what was a very poor performance, but qualified automatically nonetheless with 22 points and 17 goals scored.

Tournament Build-Up

In preparation for Euro 2016, Slovakia have played seven friendlies since their last qualifier and have remained unbeaten throughout, against opposition many would consider to be superior. Their final two matches of 2015 were 3-2 and 3-1 victories over fellow tournament participants Switzerland and Iceland respectively, showing that they are capable of finding the net against top opposition. However, their inconsistent form prevailed once again in their next two fixtures; firstly a measly 0-0 affair with a Latvia side who have regressed even further since their calamities at Euro 2004, and a 2-2 draw with Republic of Ireland. Not being able to score against FIFA’s 104th ranked country, but netting twice against one of Ireland’s better teams of recent history, highlights their inconsistency and that will hinder them in a major tournament against the elite of world football.

Slovakia must learn to play with the same intensity against weaker opponents just as they do against the leaders; they triumphed over Germany last month by a resounding 3-1 scoreline. To have beaten the world champions in the build-up to Euro 2016 will only have given the Slovakian side a much needed boost of team spirit, but also belief that they can achieve something this summer, especially against opposition that is likely to be poorer than that of Die Mannschaft. As uplifting as that victory was, it’s important to note that the starting XI Germany played in the Slovakia fixture featured five young debutants, of which some did not make the final 23-man squad. Coupled with the victory against Spain, this side are capable of creating an upset amongst some of the tournament’s elite.

How Will They Line Up

Having experimented with different line-ups, boss Jan Kozak is most likely to field a settled, experienced, ageing starting XI. While this certainly has disadvantages, many of the current squad were in the squad for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa—a tournament where Slovakia performed beyond expectations.

In goal, Slovakia have the choice of two experienced keepers in Jan Mucha and Matúš Kozáčik. The 32-year old Kozáčik is most likely to feature in the Number One shirt, having played in each of the ten qualifying fixtures, he has 17 full caps to his name.

In defence is where the experience will truly show. The four likely starters are all 29 years of age or older, the oldest being 34-year old Lokomotiv Moscow centre-back Jan Durica. Alongside Durica, is a man many Liverpool and Premier League fans will be all too familiar with—Martin Skrtel. The enigmatic and unpredictable defender has come under scrutiny in recent years for his often rash defensive performances, but in the national side as captain, Skrtel is an excellent leader and marshals the back four.

With over 100 international caps between the pair, the two full-backs; Peter Pekarik and Tomas Hubocan are very experienced. However, neither have played at the top level of European football, which means that they may find it difficult competing against some of Europe’s top wingers and on-form forwards, such as Harry Kane and Gareth Bale, whose England and Wales sides will be Group B opponents.

Slovakia often opted for a 4-2-3-1 formation in qualifying, with two holding midfielders, and expect the same successful set-up to be deployed in France. In central midfield are Juraj Kucka and 33-year old, Viktor Pečovský. The two are another experienced pairing that lack pace and experience of having played top level football. Pečovský is a veteran of the national side, but has plied his trade in his homeland for his entire career, whereas Kucka is a regular substitute and fringe player for AC Milan.

Sitting in front of the holding midfielders is an attacking force that many will be familiar with in Marek Hamsik of SSC Napoli. Supremely experienced and talented, Hamsik has been a Napoli stalwart for almost ten years, racking up over 300 league appearances for the Partenopei. His trademark mohawk hairstyle and partiality for a long-range strike will undoubtedly feature at the Euros, both certain to make an appearance at some point. He will be hoping to dictate the play from his pivotal central role, launching attacks or perhaps initiating them himself, possibly adding to his 18-goal haul for the national team.

On the wings as part of a trident-shaped attack are two of the younger members of this Slovakia squad. Robert Mak, of Greek side PAOK, will feature on one wing, with former Manchester City flop Vladimir Weiss, now playing in Qatar.

Having only named two strikers in the 23-man squad, Slovakia don’t have an abundance of forwards to choose between. Veteran Robert Vittek has been omitted from the final 23, with boss Kozak opting for the likes of Adam Nemec and Michal Duris. Nemec has featured more sporadically in recent times, indicating that Kozak prefers Duris in the lone striker role. With only ten international goals between the two, there’s no clear choice goalscorer in the squad, highlighting another weakness.

Slovakia’s Tournament Chances

Put simply, with the current squad and the prospect of facing Russia, Wales and England in Group B, qualifying for the Round of 16 would be nothing short of an achievement. Despite the fact they romped to six wins out of their first six qualifiers, Slovakia will face sterner tests than the likes of Belarus and Luxembourg. Holding their nerve on Europe’s biggest stage will be key to ensuring they aren’t embarrassed. Experience and team unity will be vital but that will only go so far, as quality and squad depth could prove to be equally if not more important, something which their Group B opponents are superior in. It remains to be seen whether their relative inconsistency can be eradicated before they kick off on June 11th, but one thing is clear: anything is possible, and a side who have recently beaten Spain and Germany should feel confident that their team spirit and ability to embrace being the underdog, could prevail, and see them qualify from their group unexpectedly.

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