Qualifying was not an easy task for Slovakia, but a Polish own goal brought the Repre to South Africa for their first ever World Cup.
Although most pundits did not see Slovakia advancing out of their qualifying group, they managed to fend off tough competition, as they finished atop a group with Slovenia, the Czech Republic, Northern Ireland, Poland, and San Marino.
New Zealand: June 15
Paraguay: June 20
Italy: June 24
Slovakia received a decent draw for the group stages, as matchups against New Zealand, Paraguay and Italy make the round of 16 a realistic goal for the debutantes.
The Repre get their feet wet in a game that should result in three points against New Zealand, which will be an advantage considering the squad’s youth. The group fixtures become progressively difficult with matches against Paraguay and finishing out Group F against the defending World Champions Italy in Johannesburg.
One advantage that Slovakia will have going into what seems to be a fight for second in Group F against Paraguay is that the Paraguayans will have to travel over 1,000 kilometers to Bloemfontein, while the Slovaks will only travel 445 km.
Assuming Italy fulfills most people’s predictions as top in Group F, while both Paraguay and Slovakia receive three points from the New Zealand match, the battle for second seems to be the match to watch in this group.
The team’s most valuable player in the attack will be Marek Hamsik, the creative Napoli midfielder. Crowned the Slovakian Player of the Year, and twice Slovakian Young Player of the Year, the 22-year-old may have only scored two goals in qualifying, but the fact that he currently leads a Napoli team that is contending for a Champions League spot with 12 goals will definitely make Hamsik the main focus of opposing defenses.
Central defender Martin Skrtel spearheads the back line and his spotty form for Liverpool should not be examined too closely, as he has been great for Slovakia in their qualifying campaign. Although Skrtel will be fit for the World Cup, it will be interesting to see how he performs after being out for eight weeks for Liverpool due to a broken metatarsal.
Coach Vladimir Weiss was successful in leading a young squad in the qualifying stages, and he will need to rally the troops and prevent a breakdown similar to that of the 2-0 loss in their meaningful match against Slovenia.
The defense may be a cause for concern for Weiss, but attacking options are there, especially with Beşiktaş striker Filipe Holosko coming back from injury.
Strengths and Weaknesses
The biggest strength for Slovakia is their potency in attack. Slovakia will have no problem putting the ball in the net, as they scored 22 goals in 10 matches during qualifying. Striker Stanislav Sestak emerged as a goal threat during the qualifying campaign as he led the squad with six goals.
Thriving at Napoli, Marek Hamsik will undoubtedly be the man in attack, though. He has an eye for goal, but is not selfish, as his play in the central midfield role will be key for most if not all of Slovakia’s attacking buildups. Hamsik will be feeding Sestak who has, despite relegation, led VFL Bochum in scoring this season.
Another strength of the squad is coach Vladimir Weiss, who has the utmost support from players and fans, while leading a young squad to their first World Cup.
Although some may consider this a weakness, the fact that this will be Slovakia’s first time on the big stage will play to their advantage, especially considering first game jitters will be discarded after the New Zealand game.
The Slovaks' defense can look spotty at times, giving up the third most goals in their qualifying group. The defense may prove to be an issue against Italy, but against Paraguay, it may not be as much of a factor since Paraguay had trouble putting the ball in the opposing net during their qualifying campaign.
It Would Be a Great World Cup If…
Nobody should underestimate the talent in the Slovak squad, but considering that they are debutantes, a round of sixteen appearance would be a success. A world class talent in Marek Hamsik combined with the youthful spirit from the squad could definitely inspire Slovakia to the second round.
With the defense seemingly suspect, if Martin Skrtel could effectively lead the backline and Vladimir Weiss successfully organize the squad (combined with a bit of luck), the Slovaks could even reach the quarterfinals.
It Would Be a Disaster If…
Slovakia’s inexperience catches up to them, and they crash out of the group stage with less than three points. New Zealand is not the most formidable of opponents and that match should not result in less than three points. While Slovakia will not be a pushover for Italy, the defending champions have to be considered favorites. Many believe Paraguay will finish second, especially with the Salvador Cabañas incident fueling team spirit.
It is difficult to predict how a young squad will act on the world’s largest soccer stage, but I do see Slovakia reaching the round of sixteen.
Coach Weiss will organize and motivate the young guns, while the absence of Cabañas in the grudge match of Group F will bail out the Slovak defense and play to the advantage of the creative Slovak attacking core.