Life is rosy if you are a Slovenian football fan. Not only have the Slovenians qualified for a World Cup for the second time, their Prime Minister Borut Pahor also cleaned the team’s boots as a reward, a charming act showing how football can emphasize a sense of community in a country. Earlier today, Matjaz Kek’s side wrote a little more history for themselves, in picking up their first ever major tournament win against Algeria.
Coming from a country with a population of just over 2 million, England’s World Cup group opponents were rank outsiders in their qualifying play-off against Russia. Diniyar Bilyaletdinov got the Russians off to a dream start on home soil, as he dodged numerous tackles and spun towards goal, before blasting into the top right hand corner. The hosts doubled their advantage when Bilyaletdinov scored a second, after a goalmouth scramble ended with the Everton man poking the ball into the net. Not wanting to go down without a fight, Slovenia showed heart and scored an away goal when substitute Nejc Pecnik headed home an easy rebound.
The reverse fixture was an all together different story, as much fancied Russia began to crumble early on. Slovenia went close numerous times in the first few minutes, with strikers Zlakto Dedic and goal machine Mile Novakovic both unlucky not to score. Just before half time, the dominant hosts finally made their advantage count. Dedic scored for Slovenia by hooking home a wicked ball in from Valter Birsa.
After their miraculous qualification, a 1-0 victory over Algeria in World Cup group C was heartening, but came with a stale, negative performance. The only goal of the game summed up proceedings. Robert Koren’s tame effort from 18 yards wriggled through the attempted save of Algerian keeper Faouzi Chaouchi.
The side ranked 25th in the world beat Slovakia, Northern Ireland and Poland in qualifying group C, and Koln’s Novakovic was a talisman in their route to South Africa. Scoring 5 times in qualifying, it became clear that when Novakovic plays well, Slovenia play well. He has a stunning International record of 16 goals in 38 appearances.
Slovenia are a well organised unit and may prove a frustrating test for Fabio Capello’s side. However, if England attack in numbers, goals will come with a bit of patience. The 1966 World Cup winners can have things very much their own way by keeping Novakovic and Dedic quiet. Algeria stifled most forward play from the Slovenians, who resorted to short, passive passing, unable to find a way to their strikers. Koren and co only grasped any initiative when their opponents were reduced to 10 men, and their freak goal was symbolic of their lacking performance.
England play Slovenia on June 23rd and Wayne Rooney will be eager to capitalise on Marko Suler’s shaky defending displayed against Algeria. Capello’s team will go in as heavy favourites despite disappointment against USA, and it appears unlikely that England will sit back and admire Slovenia’s aimless, short passes. England learned a lot about their group opponents in a friendly last September when they beat them 2-1. They will be confident of a similar result, but Capello must demand a better performance than both against Slovenia at Wembley, and Saturday against USA.