Saturday 14 December 2019

Inconsistent Slovaks love the big stage

Ireland must be wary, writes Dion Fanning

Ireland may discover in Zilina on Tuesday just how they are viewed by the rest of Europe. Slovakia's failure to overcome Armenia in Yerevan on Friday may have surprised those who expected them to be the force in the group following their win in Moscow. But those who know Slovakian football were not shocked.

Slovakia, as their World Cup demonstrated, are a side that enjoys the big occasion. Yerevan may not have been big enough for them. The importance of Zilina on Tuesday cannot now be understated. But Ireland may hope that they are underestimated.

The pattern of Slovakia's World Cup now looks like being repeated. After a disappointing performances against New Zealand and defeat to Paraguay, coach Vladimir Weiss was dealing with a hostile press but dealing with them, at times, by threatening even more hostility.

In the summer, Slovakian journalists complained that he had been physically abusive after the defeat to Paraguay. Perceptions changed with the dramatic defeat of Italy and the pattern that has also been seen in this group emerged. Slovakia are a young side and their innocence and their strengths were revealed in the story of their safari in South Africa when they asked if it was okay if they could get out and pet the lions.

"They like the big stage," says Daniel Richardson, whose blog Britski Belasi concentrates on Slovakian football. "They're a team that is happier playing a team like Russia in Moscow than Macedonia at home in Bratislava," Richardson said on Thursday, adding some fears for the game in Yerevan which proved to be justified. As they had against Ireland, Armenia counter-attacked Slovakia on Friday as if they would never get the chance to attack again.

The Slovakian centre-back pairing of Martin Skrtel and Kornel Salata were credited by most with the victory in Moscow so Skrtel's yellow card in Yerevan is a loss even if he didn't make himself look indispensable in Armenia. Weiss took full responsibility for the defeat on Friday and threatened nobody. He will expect more from the team this week. They struggled to beat Macedonia at home in their opening game, but that was in Bratislava.

Slovakia are relieved to have moved from Bratislava and the Stadion Pasienky to Zilina. The Slovaks had grown tired of the grim atmosphere at the Pasienky. Now they are in Zilina in an equally small stadium but one which creates a better atmosphere. The loss of Skrtel is important but the injury to Miroslav Stoch in Yerevan looked serious and he is a bigger loss for Slovakia. Stoch had developed into Slovakia's most important creative player, scoring the only goal in Russia and becoming more influential than captain Marek Hamsik.

Hamsik is only 23 so can't exactly be written off but while Slovakia's youth promises much, they can also become ragged and unnecessarily individualistic if things aren't going their way, as they weren't in Yerevan.

"Slovakia are a solid side and they hope for a moment of genius from one of the gifted players," Richardson said. The central midfield partnership of Miroslav Karhan and Kamil Kopunek is supposed to provide that foundation. Zdeno Strba, who started in Moscow, was missed in Armenia.

Slovakia also have problems scoring goals in the absence through injury of Robert Vittek. With two players already gone, Weiss will probably stick with Stanislav Sestak in attack but he is returning from injury and might struggle with the workload. As they chased the game in Armenia, Slovakia looked to their gifted young players. In Yerevan, it was Vladimir Weiss Jr, the latest in the Weiss dynasty (his grandfather played for Czechoslovakia).

The coach's son scored Slovakia's equaliser, demonstrating his quality in the process, before things fell apart again. Weiss Jr is the most unpredictable of the three but Slovakia may need to rely on him this week. On Tuesday in Zilina, both sides will be gambling.

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