Slovakia are now preparing for their first ever European Championship finals. With this in mind, it would be all too easy to dismiss them as also-rans in a tournament of first-class opposition.
Slovakia’s performances in the qualifiers make it hard to predict their chances in Euro 2016. How do we think they will fare?
Route to Euro 2016
Slovakia qualified for Euro 2016 as runners-up in Group C. Despite coming second to Spain, they were able to beat the holders 2-1 at home. Against Ukraine (who finished third), they drew once and won once.
A loss at home to Belarus kept the battle for second place open until the last round of games, when Spain won away against Ukraine to help Slovakia through.
Euro 2016 is Slovakia’s first European Championships, despite five previous attempts. The only major competition besides Euro 2016 for which they’ve qualified is the 2010 World Cup under Vladimir Weiss.
In that competition, Slovakia beat holders Italy 3-2 in their last group game to qualify for the Round of 16. Holland then beat Slovakia 2-1 in the first round of the knockout phase.
The key players in the squad that beat Italy in 2010 continue to be the core members of the team going into Euro 2016.
Ján Kozák has been head coach of four Slovak clubs in his managerial career: Lokomotíva Košice, Michalovce, Ličartovce, and Košice.
He managed Košice in four spells; the first of which saw him lead the club to successive domestic titles in the Slovak Super Liga in 1996-97 and 1997-98. He then took them to the group stage of the Champions League in 1998.
Kozák became manager of the national team in 2013 and is known for his ability to improve underperforming teams.
However, he’s also renowned for having a fiery temper, which has often resulted confrontations on the touchline and in press conferences, as well as fines by the Slovak FA.
Most important player
Captain Marek Hamšík scored five times in commanding displays for his country during the qualifiers.
A versatile attacking midfielder who plays for Napoli, he is well-known for his pacey driving runs, and for his ability to thread in pinpoint passes from deep positions.
2003 Ballon d’Or winner, Pavel Nedvĕd, says that Hamšík reminds him of himself, with the retired Czech midfielder referring to the 28-year-old as his “heir”. Despite the fact that they represent different clubs and national teams, this is high praise indeed.
Róbert Mak was one of three Slovakians to join the Manchester City youth academy in the pre-Abu Dhabi years; the others were Filip Mentel and Vladmír Weiss. He and his compatriots were in the team that won the FA Youth Cup in 2008.
Despite this early success, the left-winger failed to break through in Manchester, and currently plays for POAK in the Greek Super League. Now in his second season in Greece, Mak is blessed with great ball control, blistering pace and a thunderous left foot.
At 5/1 to win Group B, we don’t think Slovakia have much chance of reaching the knockout phase. This is largely because they sit in a group of superior teams in England and Russia, as well as the Gareth Bale-led Wales.
In the qualifiers, they lost against lowly Belarus, but they also beat reigning champs Spain. So while we don’t expect Slovakia to set the European stage alight, it would be foolish to underestimate their potential.