Opening fixtures likely to decide Slovaks’ fate
EURO 2020 GROUP E
THE dissolution of Czechoslovakia in 1993 has taken some adjusting to and this is just the third time from 13 attempts in which Slovakia have qualified for a major competition as an independent nation. Both appearances – at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa and the last European Championship – resulted in a last-16 exit and ultimately that is likely to be their limit once more. Slovakia relied on two tense playoff ties to book their finals ticket, upsetting Ireland in a dramatic shootout at home before outlasting Northern Ireland in extra-time at Windsor Park. Just four weeks before their playoff final in Belfast, manager Pavel Hapal was sacked and replaced by Stefan Tarkovic, who was assistant in France five years ago. Since sealing their finals spot, Slovakia have suffered relegation from the second tier of the Nations League and have been held to dismal draws by minnows Cyprus and Malta in World Cup qualifying, before regaining focus with a vital 2-1 win over Russia. The Slovaks are the lowest-ranked nation in Group E and only three sides are rated inferior to them at this summer’s showpiece. They have won only two of their last 11 competitive fixtures in regulation time and wily veteran Marek Hamsik, now plying his trade in Sweden, is still relied upon heavily to sprinkle star quality. There is a nice spine to the side with Newcastle number one Martin Dubravka, Inter centre-back Milan Skriniar and Napoli anchorman Stanislav Lobotka pulling the strings alongside Hamsik in midfield. But the lack of a recognised goalscorer is problematic. Tarkovic may opt for more defensive-minded tactics, with Slovakia likely to target their opening two fixtures against Poland and Sweden in St Petersburg, instead of a curtain-closer with Group E heavyweights Spain.