23 November ~ Not long after MSK Zilina's crushing home defeat by Marseille in the last round of Champions League group stage matches, a new joke hit the airwaves in Slovakia. "MSK are going to change their name," it went. "They're going to call themselves Zilina 07." It's a good thing that Zilina fans were able to see the funny side. Their team's next group game, away to Chelsea tonight, offers little prospect of comfort and there's a growing feeling that the club as a whole is making rather a mess of this European campaign.
Zilina's first mistake was made in the boardroom and concerned ticket prices for the opening Group F game, at home to Chelsea. To take just one example, main stand season-ticket holders wishing to watch the match from their own seats were asked for €150 (£128) each. In the face of the inevitable protests and threats of a boycott, owner Jozef Antosik published a rambling justification of the pricing policy on the club's website. Unsurprisingly, his efforts were greeted with derision. Many regular fans opted not to attend the game, their places taken by relatively well-heeled Slovaks who were clearly more familiar with the Chelsea players than those of the home side.
It was always expected that Zilina would find life difficult on the field but here too they have hardly helped themselves. Ahead of the Chelsea home game, coach Pavel Hapal insisted his side would play open, attacking football and wouldn't deviate from their usual 4-1-3-2 formation. After Chelsea had strolled contentedly through the inviting spaces to go 3-0 up inside the first half hour (they finally won 4-1), Hapal had a rethink, deciding to attempt a more pragmatic 4-2-3-1 away to Spartak Moscow. This just looked improvised; midfielders got in each other's way and lone striker Tomas Oravec was hopelessly isolated. Spartak eased to a 3-0 win.
Hapal and his players have also revealed a damaging naivety in their media appearances. A much-improved performance in a 1-0 defeat away to Marseille led to hopes that the French team would struggle when they visited Slovakia. "They're the most beatable side in the group," said Hapal. "This is our big chance to pick up three points," agreed his captain, Robert Jez. The effect seemed to be to encourage Marseille to show the full extent of their capabilities. Like Chelsea, they established a 3-0 lead within the first 30 minutes. Unlike the Londoners, they gave Zilina no respite, going 7-0 up just after the hour mark and continuing to create chances until the final whistle.
One effect of Zilina's performances has been to weaken the arguments of those purists who believe that champions have the right to play in a competition calling itself the Champions League. Zilina did, after all, come through three qualifying rounds to reach the group stage, having won the Slovak title in 2009-10. The fact that they have a comfortable lead at the top of the Corgon Liga this season too naturally raises questions over the quality of Slovak football. Yet easy conclusions should be avoided. For a start, the league and its member clubs are trying to help Zilina in their European campaign by agreeing that domestic matches which precede group-stage fixtures can be played on Friday evenings.
Secondly, it is becoming apparent that Hapal is rotating his squad in a way that suggests that the Slovak league is a bigger priority for him than the Champions League. Certain selections for the Marseille home game were somewhat left field, especially that of young Argentinian Sergio Vittor, barely settled in Slovakia, who was chosen to play in central midfield alongside Issiako Bello, a player returning after a troublesome injury. Such risky choices have not been made for recent Corgon Liga matches.
Given all this, Zilina fans are left wondering what qualification for the group stages really meant to the club all along. Was it simply an opportunity to make money? Was there a genuine belief that points could be gained? Or was it more important to get valuable experience, win the Slovak league again and have another go at Europe next year? Whatever the answer to that, Sunderland's recent victory away to Chelsea isn't seen by Zilina supporters as reason for encouragement ahead of their team's game at Stamford Bridge tonight. "We might keep them down to nine," is one of the more optimistic predictions I've heard. James Baxter