Group F Preview – Is Slovakia the Team to Beat?
Manager – Vladimir Weiss Sr.
FIFA Ranking – 34
Schedule – New Zealand (6/15), Paraguay (6/20), Italy (6/24)
Qualification – First place, UEFA Group 3
Big name player- Marek Hamsik (Napoli)
Last time they qualified for WC – Never
A quick geography lesson for those who are unfamiliar with the European landscape – Slovakia is half of Czechoslovakia, which split into different countries in 1993. This is the first time that the Slovaks have made the World Cup, but their countrymen were key contributors to the Czechoslovakian clubs that won the 1976 European championship and made the quarterfinals of the 1990 World Cup. Their neighbors and former countrymen also have international history: the Czechs made the 2006 tournament only to fail to advance from the group stage, despite a FIFA ranking as high as #4.
The club had a tough qualification in UEFA Group 3 but showed resilience to make the World Cup. Their most impressive victory was undoubtedly their 2-1 win over the Czech Republic in Prague, the first time they had ever beaten their former countrymen in their former capital. They qualified after winning a match 1-0 over Poland where they scored the go-ahead goal three minutes into the match and held on for the victory. They did however lose to fellow World Cup qualifiers Slovenia in the group stage.
Their manager is a famous name in Slovakian football history. Vladimir Weiss’s father was a member of the Czechoslovakian national squad and Weiss himself was a member of the 1990 team. He was named manager in 2008 and has achieved fame in the country by leading them to their first World Cup.
A key player to the Slovakian attack is also Vladimir Weiss – the manager’s son. The 22 year old Manchester City player did not receive a lot of playing time in the EPL due to City’s depth chart, but is highly regarded by Roberto Mancini. He will likely be the right winger in the team’s 4-4-2 formation pairing with a familiar name to Serie A fans: Marek Hamsik was Napoli’s leading goal scorer this season, notching 12 goals in 37 appearances. He has experience playing against the members of the Italian team, and that experience could be key in their June 24 match. The rest of the midfield could be manned by Mainz 05’s Miroslav Karhan, who has 96 international appearances, and Miroslav Stoche.
Up front are two players who can certainly score goals. One striker is 28 year old Robert Vittek, who is playing professionally in Turkey but failed to notch a goal in qualifying. Only four years ago, he starred at Nuremberg in Bundesliga and became the first Bundesliga player to score a combined six goals in back to back matches. The other striker is likely Stanislav Sestak, who plays for Bochum in Germany and notched six goals in the last ten international matches.
The backline has most likely the most famous Slovakian football player in the world, Liverpool’s Martin Skrtel. His height can help with set pieces and any injury to the superstar could doom Slovakia’s chances. On the line with him are three players from Bundesliga, but the most interesting member of the defense could be the keeper Jan Mucha. Mucha recently completed a transfer from the Polish league to Everton, where he is expected to be competition in goal for the U.S.’s Tim Howard next season in the EPL. English soccer fans may want to keep an eye on him to see if he could compete with Howard.
The Slovakian club is very experienced at the club level and some of their key players have international experience as well. Slovakia is the type of team that has enough talent and experience to give Italy trouble in the group stage IF they stay healthy. Injuries to key “backbone” players like Skrtel or Hamsik would doom their chances. But a healthy Slovakian squad could give the Azzurri problems and knock them from their presumed perch in Group F.