Euro 2016 Preview - Slovakia: Hamsik the star of side trying to navigate tricky group

Can Napoli's captain lead his entertaining team through a group stage that includes England and Wales?

Euro 2016 Preview - Slovakia: Hamsik the star of side trying to navigate tricky group
Slovakia celebrate defeating Spain in qualification (photo: The Guardian)

Twenty-four years ago the country of Slovakia did not even exist. In 1993 it gained independence from Czechoslovakia and set about its own way in the world.

Although the likes of Dusan Tittel, Szilard Nemeth, once of Middlesborough, and Marek Mittal, who graced the Bundesliga, lit up the European countries football scene, it took until 2010 for Slovakia to qualify for their first major tournament.

The World Cup hosted in South Africa looked to be drawing to an early end, before an inspired display saw them defeat Italy to reach the last 16 where they were eventually knocked out by Netherlands. This summer the Slovaks are preparing for their first adventure in the European Championships where they will bring a unique brand of hard work and tactical innovation. 

The qualification campaign

Drawn in a qualification group that included reigning champions Spain and the always challenging Ukraine, many predicted third and a potential playoff would be the best hope for Slovakia. Yet Jan Kozak's men got their campaign off to a flier with a surprise 1-0 victory in Ukraine. That result set them on a six game winning streak, as only England could match such a start to the qualification rounds. Included in that run was another shock victory, this time running out 2-1 winners against Spain.

Slovakia did witness a dip in form when they lost 2-0 in the return match to Spain, before holding Ukraine to a 0-0 draw and then producing their worst performance of the qualifying stages in a 1-0 defeat to Belarus. Yet a 4-2 victory three days later against Luxembourg assured they qualified in second place behind Spain in Group C to secure their ticket to France this summer. 

Since their nervy finale to qualification, Slovakia have reclaimed their form in recent friendlies. Viktoria Plzen's Michal Duris had gone 18 games without an international goal, before firing three in two in victories against Switzerland and Iceland back in November. More recently they were held to a goalless draw by Latvia, before drawing 2-2 against Republic of Ireland in March. They have three more friendlies to come against Georgia, Germany and Northern Ireland, all designed to aid fitness and tactical selections ahead of the competition, whilst mirroring the style of play that is likely to be seen by their group opponents Russia, England and Wales.

Slovakia qualify for Euro 2016 (photo: Getty Images)
Slovakia qualify for Euro 2016 | Photo: Getty Images

The manager and style of play

Kozak leads the Slovakia team, after playing nearly 300 times in the Czechoslovakia football league and making 54 international appearances. He is a charismatic and sometimes controversial figure, though is tactically astute, preferring variations of his tried and tested 4-1-4-1 formation. During qualification, Kozak used his midfielders in different ways in almost every game to match the strengths of the opposition. Expect to see a similar approach in France, with two or possibly three defensive midfielders deployed against group favourites England, whilst they may be allowed more of a free reign against Wales and possibly Russia.

Kozak has already suggested that is team are not the underdogs in the group as they will "fight and be very hard to beat." Kozak's team are known for defending from the front and putting every ounce of energy towards the cause. Referring to group opponents England and their unbeaten qualification run, Kozak has suggested "there is a difference between the Championship and qualifying," as the English fans will only be too aware. 

Kozak went on to explain "one thing with England is that it's hard for them to play in big tournaments because everyone wants them to win so badly, especially after this unbeaten qualification. The expectation is so big."

Strengths and weaknesses

Slovakia's strength has to come from their midfield. An adaptable approach makes it difficult for opposition coaches to prepare for the Eastern Europeans and speed and flair on the flanks makes it even harder for full-backs to defend against them. Both Miroslav Stoch and Vladimir Weiss will have a point to prove against England after making only a handful of Premier League appearances between them, though the latter finished top of the charts for assists during qualification across all of the nations involved. Add to that the inspired recent form of Robert Mak and Slovakia will be a danger on the wings. 

Slovakia are no soft touch in central areas either. Napoli's Marek Hamsik has always been one of the top European players for his club, though Kozak has developed his game on the international scene by allowing the playmaker a free role behind the striker. Supported by Jan Kucka of AC Milan in a deeper position, Slovakia have a decent midfield. 

Defensively, Kozak's men are set up to work tirelessly to support the back four. They conceded just eight goals in ten games during qualification, but their ability to keep out their Group B opponents could depend upon the fitness of Liverpool defender Martin Skrtel who has missed a number of games for his club side this season.

Slovakia also look a touch lightweight up front with all-time top goalscorer Robert Vittek, the hero against Italy in 2010, missing out on selection the through injury.

A lot will rest on the shoulders of Hamsik (photo: Goal)
A lot will rest on the shoulders of Hamsik | Photo: Goal.com

Key players

The key player in the Slovakia squad is undoubtedly their captain and playmaker Hamsik. The attacking midfielder has made over 300 appearances for Serie A runners-up Napoli, scoring 81 goals in the process. He is closing in on 100 international caps and is finding his best form since Kozak allowed him a free reign of the pitch, often behind a lone striker or occasionally as the man up front himself. 

Weiss is their wildcard. The winger has never really made a name for himself at club level, having spells in England, Scotland, Spain, Italy, Greece and currently Qatar. Yet Weiss made six assists during qualification and no international player can claim more as a variety of speed, trickery and crossing ability provide the strengths to his game.

Vladimir Weiss has a point to prove to English fans (photo: Getty Images)
Vladimir Weiss has a point to prove to English fans (photo: Getty Images)

The opponents 

Slovakia may not be too well known around the home nations, though they will be after a summer in France. They have been drawn in a group including England, Wales and Russia. The English are undoubtedly favourites to win the group after a faultless qualification campaign, leaving them fourth with the bookies to win the competition itself. A blend of exciting young players and experienced talents give England one of their best chances of lifting a major tournament trophy for the first time in 50 years.

Wales are a bit of an unknown quantity on the global football stage after qualifying for their first major competition since 1958. Their squad is made up of a number of Premier League talents, most notably Arsenal's Aaron Ramsey, though their success is likely to ride on the shoulders of the most expensive player in the world, Real Madrid's Gareth Bale.

Russia are a more recognised side on the global stage, with their best performance resulting in third place during Euro 2008. They are an industrious side filled with a number of experienced players, though the loss of experienced midfielder Alan Dzagoev with a broken foot will hinder thir chances. 

England are likely to run away with the group, whilst Russia, Wales and Slovakia squabble over second place. Russia have an ageing squad, whilst Wales lack big match experience, leaving Slovakia with every chance of filling second position behind England. A lot will depend on the games between those three countries when they play against each other. 

Can Slovakia stop Gareth Bale? (Photo: Sky Sports)
Can Slovakia stop Gareth Bale? | Photo: Sky Sports

Slovakia's Euro 2016 fixtures read as follows:

11th June (Bordeaux)- Wales v Slovakia

15th June (Lille)- Russia v Slovakia

20th June (Saint-Etienne)- Slovakia v England