Slovakia may quietly sneak into knockout stage
This is Slovakia’s first-ever appearance at a major international tournament, so you can be forgiven for knowing little about them.
That might be their biggest strength – the surprise factor. Not only is their team as a whole relatively unknown, despite having won their qualification group ahead of Slovenia, but many of their players are relatively low-key. Napoli’s Marik Hamsik is unquestionably the star name and Martin Skrtel of Liverpool is well-known, but players like Vladimir Weiss and Mirolav Stoch have had relatively little time in the limelight, and defenders might be facing a threat they know little about.
Slovania played a fairly basic 4-4-2 shape throughout the qualifiers and that could continue at the World Cup, though there has been speculation they could switch to a 4-2-3-1.
The first XI
The back five will remain in place regardless of what happens ahead. After an injury scare last week, Martin Skrtel has declared himself fit, and will partner Jan Durica in a fearsome central defensive duo. The versatile Radoslav Zabavnik will slot in at right-back, whilst Marek Cech seems to have edged out Peter Pekarik at left-back.
The midfield depends, of course, on what formation Slovakia play. Marik Hamsik will play an advanced role with Zdenko Strba holding if it’s a two-man central midfield; if the 4-2-3-1 is used, Hamsik will push forward. The second defensive midfielder would have been Miroslav Karhan, but he has been ruled out through injury, so Jan Kozak and Kamil Kopunek will compete for the (possible) final midfield position.
The wide positions will be filled by Vladimir Weiss, (son of the manager, also named Vladimir Weiss) and Miroslav Stock, both 20 years of age, and 5′8 and 5′6 respectively, who provide pace and creativity from the flanks.
The first-choice upfront will be Stanislav Sestak, a hard-working player with a strong shot, whilst the popular but out-of-form Robert Vittek will partner him in a 4-4-2.
Slovakia must hit the ground running with a victory over New Zealand to stand a chance of qualifying. Although the 4-4-2 would generally be used over the 4-2-3-1 against weaker opponents, playing the former would surely play into the hands of New Zealand’s 3-4-3. A 4-2-3-1 against them, with the wide midfielders staying high up the pitch, might be the better option, and therefore that’s the line-up depicted above.
The key players will obviously be the creative trio of Hamsik, Stoch and Weiss – the latter two with their pace and direct running on the flanks; you can certainly imagine them giving the backlines of Paraguay and Italy a problem. Italy have a habit of conceding crucial goals to Serie A players, and Hamsik in the final game would fit that bill perfectly.
Slovakia are a decent bet for a second round place.