Slovakia on World Cup trail

It is nearly 11 months since Slovakia played their last meaningful game, a 1-0 defeat at home to Russia which ensured they would take no part in Euro 2012. They return to competitive action this week, with Friday’s trip to Vilnius to face Lithuania in World Cup qualifying. Four days after that, they meet Lichtenstein in Bratislava.

Some things have changed in the Slovakia set-up since that Russia match, but much remains familiar too. The biggest change is the replacement of Vladimír Weiss as coach (he left ‘by mutual consent’ in January) by the two-man team of Stanislav Griga and Michal Hipp. The appointment of this duo followed the single-minded, but ham-fisted and ultimately unsuccessful, three-month pursuit of Viktoria Plzeň coach Pavel Vrba. Hipp, formerly Weiss’s assistant, had strengthened his case for remaining in the set-up by guiding the side to a 2-1 friendly win in Turkey in February, while Griga, much-respected for his work with various Slovak and Czech clubs, was always a fine candidate.

The new coaches can hardly be accused of allowing their players to get too comfortable. Slovakia have played three more friendlies since their appointment, all of them against sides who appeared in the Euro 2012 finals (Poland, Holland and Denmark). They also appear to be in the process of discarding some of Weiss’s perennial selections, such as centre-back Ján Ďurica and forwards Filip Hološko and Erik Jendrišek.

There have not, however, been any great tactical changes. Weiss nearly always preferred a 4-2-3-1 formation for competitive games, though he did sometimes experiment with twin-strikers or 4-3-3 in friendlies. On the evidence of what we’ve seen so far, Griga and Hipp look certain to favour 4-2-3-1 for the foreseeable future. Some of the personnel will also be familiar from the Weiss era. Ján Mucha is still the first-choice goalkeeper, especially now that he’s seen recent first-team action with Everton. Martin Škrtel is also a constant in central-defence, where he forms a solid partnership with Tomáš Hubočan. Further forward, Miroslav Stoch, Marek Hamšík and Vladimír Weiss Junior are a talented attacking trio who played a lot of games together under the former regime.

But Slovakia may have an unfamiliar look about them in the deeper midfield positions and up-front. Trabzonspor’s Marek Sapara returned to the side for the Denmark game after a long absence and made a highly favourable impression with his passing game. He was joined for the second-half by one of two Slovak league players in the squad, Žilina’s Viktor Pečovský. A predominantly defensive player, Pečovský appeared to strike up an immediate understanding with Sapara as their team turned round a 1-0 deficit to win 3-1. These two must now have a good chance of starting the Lithuania game together, but that would probably mean leaving out Genoa’s Juraj Kucka, a highly-rated player but one who hasn’t always looked at home in international football.

There are only two out-and-out strikers in the squad, Martin Jakubko of Amkar Perm and Plzeň’s Marek Bakoš. Neither would have been likely to appear had Weiss still been in charge. The former coach stood by as Jakubko retired in something of a huff after the 2010 World Cup (Hipp is credited with talking him into a return) and was always oddly dismissive of Bakoš’s claims. Yet both have some of the essential qualities of the lone striker, being good in the air and comfortable with their backs to goal. Jakubko has the more intimidating physical presence, and scored with his first touch after coming on against the Danes, factors which may well be in his favour when Griga and Hipp choose Friday’s starting XI. After all, the coaches know very well that the main reason Slovakia disappointed in Euro 2012 qualifying was their failure to score goals. Seven in ten games is a damning statistic, especially considering that the group contained Andorra.

With Greece as its top seed, Group G is one of those in the coming campaign which doesn’t contain a single outstanding team. But perhaps because of that, everyone else, with the exception of Lichtenstein, will feel they have a chance of qualifying. If Slovakia can gain six points from the first two fixtures, home games against Latvia and Greece in October will then give them a chance of establishing a very good platform.

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