Having travelled to South Africa desperate to make a good impression at the 2010 FIFA World Cup™, the pressure has seemed to weigh heavily on Slovakia’s young squad. Held 1-1 by New Zealand first time out before suffering a 2-0 reverse at the hands of Paraguay, the Repre must now lift themselves ahead of Thursday’s meeting with Italy to avoid leaving the tournament with their heads held low.
It was, of course, with a head that Slovakia initially got their campaign off to a promising start, Robert Vittek nodding in against New Zealand to record his 20th international goal and move just two shy of the country’s record scorer, Szilard Nemeth. That strike long appeared sufficient to earn Vladimir Weiss’s troops three precious points, but in the closing seconds they were pegged back by opponents determined to give everything until the final whistle.
“Morale is very low because it’s always tragic when you concede a goal in stoppage time,” the coach explained to FIFA afterwards. “We have two days to recover and we’re ready both mentally and physically to take on Paraguay. What happened is history now and tomorrow is another day.” Hopes therefore remained that the European side would promptly pick themselves up.
Weiss opted to face Los Guaraníes with new blood in the form of Jan Kozak, Kornel Salata and Peter Pekarik, while keeping the spine of the side the same by fielding Marek Hamsik, Stanislav Sestak, Martin Skrtel and Vittek. “I made that choice at the end of the morning training session,” explained the 45-year-old.
“I thought about selecting Marek Cech, but in the end I went with Jan Durica at left-back because I expected Paraguay to play with three forwards. That was my thinking. The irony was that the two goals we conceded had nothing to do with my tactics. We just made silly errors.”
Some might say they were errors of youth as Slovakia came into the tournament lacking experience at the highest level. “It’s the World Cup and we’ve paid a high price for our mistakes while failing to punish our opponents for theirs,” added Weiss. “That’s how it’s gone so far.”
The statistics did not make for encouraging reading either. Against Paraguay, Slovakia enjoyed 51 per cent of the ball but could only muster a single shot on target – a discouraging figure for a team that struck 22 times from 78 attempts in qualifying, giving them the highest shots-to-goals ratio in the European Zone at 28 per cent. Ultimately, they never looked capable of finding the level needed to trouble their South American rivals and ended up losing their nerve.
Naturally enough, the quality of their opponents had much to do with the outcome too, and the Slovenia players were quick to praise a team whose weaknesses they failed to expose. “Paraguay showed their strength, both up front and at the back,” said Durica. “They controlled the whole game and left us nothing but scraps.”
In the same vein, Skrtel told FIFA: “It was a very difficult match, above all because Paraguay are a quality side.” The coach was similarly impressed. “Paraguay were quite simply the best team on the pitch,” he said.
The task now for Weiss and his charges will be to turn their fortunes around against Italy, when nothing short of a victory will suffice to give them a chance of progressing to the Round of 16. In fact, even if they do pull off a win over the Squadra Azzurra, events will need to unfold in their favour in the game between Paraguay and New Zealand in Polokwane.
“We have to give everything in this final match and we’ll see where we stand afterwards,” explained Weiss, preferring caution to bombast. He and his side nonetheless remain determined to reach the last 16, even if it means forcing the world champions to pack their bags for home.