Even before the start of qualifying for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™, European Group 3 appeared one of the most open and unpredictable on the continent. And so it has transpired, with both top spot and the runners-up position still up for grabs with two matchdays to go.
Nevertheless, Slovakia are ideally placed to claim the single direct qualifying berth for next year's global showdown. The group leaders require just a point from their next game to book their place at a FIFA World Cup for the first time since gaining independence.
We've played well a few times, but there have been games where we've taken fewer points than we wanted. We should never have lost in Northern Ireland and we were the better team away to the Czechs, in my opinion.
However, Slovenia plan to spoil the Slovak party when they visit Bratislava this Saturday, 10 October. The Slovenia squad includes defender Miso Brecko, who plays his club football in the Bundesliga with Cologne, and has appeared in seven of his country's eight qualifiers so far. The 25-year-old is fairly certain of what he and his team-mates can expect in the crunch encounter at the weekend. "It'll be a full-blooded clash. They could qualify for the World Cup for the first time, and the match sold out in four minutes, which tells you all you need to know. But it'll be tense, and we're up for it. We think we'll win in Slovakia - and then we'll finish first, because the Slovaks won't win in Poland. That's how we see it working out," Brecko exclusively told FIFA.com.
Slovenia have taken 14 points from their eight games, and have the best defensive record in the section with only four goals against. However, Brecko continues to be tormented by narrow 1-0 defeats away to Northern Ireland and the Czech Republic. "We've played well a few times, but there have been games where we've taken fewer points than we wanted. We should never have lost in Northern Ireland, and we were the better team away to the Czechs, in my opinion, so the defeat there goes down as unlucky. But we still have a chance, provided we take something from the Slovakia match," Brecko reasoned.
The 1.78m defender remains at a loss to explain the defeats. "We have a number of younger players, but we really haven't pinpointed the cause of our problems. We basically played well, but we came up a couple of per cent short at the end. But we're looking ahead now. We'll take as many points as we can, and make certain of finishing second at least."
In preparing for their final fixtures, away to the Slovaks and San Marino, Brecko hopes an intense few days' training will generate an upbeat mood in the Slovenia camp. "Training with the national set-up is different from training with your club. You learn different tactics and skills. The mood in the dressing room is vital, in my opinion. For me, the most important thing is a positive atmosphere, although we obviously train hard as well. Each of us wants to give it his best," he declared.
Four days after the showdown in Bratislava, Slovenia travel to face San Marino. The minnows have yet to register a point in nine games, and have conceded 44 goals while scoring just one of their own, but Brecko still felt compelled to issue a warning against complacency. "It's like a cup tie for your club against lower league opposition. It's all a lot easier if you get an early goal. But you can never rule out an upset, so we have to concentrate the whole time," the former Hamburg defender admonished.
Should Slovenia battle through to the 2010 finals, they would be appearing for the second time, although their maiden tilt at the world crown ended in a group stage exit at Japan/Korea in 2002. Brecko was just 18 at the time and not even on the fringes of the national set-up, but he is only too pleased when the conversation turns to a great moment in his country's footballing history. "I remember every detail. I was at a sports academy with one of my current international team-mates, and we went out into the city to celebrate our national team, who'd just qualified for the World Cup finals. Now we're hoping a new generation of young fans will be cheering for us," he said.
South African dream
His national team is aiming for a second shot at the biggest prize in the game, but it would be the Yugoslavia-born full-back's first trip to the greatest sporting show on earth. Brecko made no secret of the significance of qualifying for the FIFA World Cup, both for his country and for him personally. "It's like it must be for the Germans when they win the trophy itself. It would be another dream come true for me. One of my greatest wishes is to play at the World Cup, and I'll do everything I can to achieve it."
FIFA.com spoke to the player at the FC Koln training ground, his workplace since the summer of 2008. However, the Rhineland club have made a poor start to the new campaign and lie third from bottom of the Bundesliga with only five points from eight games, although results have looked up recently, with a goalless draw away to Bayern at the weekend. "We've not started well. We've had a very difficult set of fixtures, but if you look at the way we played against Wolfsburg or Frankfurt, we could have done better. We should never have lost to Schalke either. Fortunately, we won for the first time away to Stuttgart, and we've made the next round of the cup. We have to keep our eyes on the future. We have some vital games coming up, and there are still a lot of points to play for," Brecko stated optimistically.
Koln generally play to 50,000 capacity crowds in their own stadium, which makes their dismal home record last season of just 17 points from 17 games all the more perplexing. The misery has continued into the new campaign, where they have the worst home record of all 18 Bundesliga clubs with a solitary point from four matches.
Training with the national set-up is different from training with your club. You learn different tactics and skills. The mood in the dressing room is vital, in my opinion.
"I believe we have the best fans in the league. Perhaps we've let that get to us, we may throw too many men forward and then concede silly goals. It's one thing on top of another. We need rapid improvement, because we want our fans celebrating more home wins," Brecko remarked.
The player is determined to help Slovenia to more wins too. The first and most important chance comes in Saturday's trip to Slovakia, where victory could pave the way for a confirmed berth in South Africa next summer. There is every chance of a truly tense thriller when the sides go to the mat in Bratislava this weekend.