2 September ~ With Slovakia, Ireland and Russia level on points at the top, Group B has been one of the more closely-fought of Euro 2012 qualifying. There are a few potentially decisive matches to be played in it yet, starting with Ireland v Slovakia in Dublin tonight. Ireland will struggle to draw many conclusions from their opponents' outings since the dour 1-1 draw in the reverse fixture in Žilina last October. Slovakia have played just two qualifying games over the last 11 months, both of which resulted in forgettable single-goal victories over Andorra.
Three successive friendlies were lost, to Bosnia-Herzegovina, Luxembourg and Denmark, before a fortuitous 2-1 success away to Austria last month. But coach Vladimír Weiss Senior appears to use friendlies for experimental purposes rather than to sustain winning habits, his record in non-competitive matches with Slovakia – P17 W4 D4 L9 – contrasting starkly with the P20 W12 D3 L5 he boasts in the games that matter.
Slovakia will certainly be glad that Martin Škrtel has proved his fitness and shown some form ahead of their date in Dublin. The fans have little faith in Ján Ďurica, Weiss's preferred partner for the Liverpool centre-back, while Weiss himself seems to lack confidence in any of the other alternatives, including Carlisle United's Ľubomír Michalík.
The Slovaks do look well-served in central midfield, though captain Marek Hamšík is an injury doubt at the time of writing. Weiss says he will not call up a replacement, believing that there is enough quality in the squad even in the event that Hamšík has to miss out. Miroslav Karhan, a veteran of over 100 internationals, is a reassuring holding presence, Juraj Kucka and/or Karim Guédé supply physique, running and powerful shooting, and Róbert Jež is an accomplished passer of the ball.
It is further forward that Weiss's own concerns appear to be most concentrated. He was recently quoted as saying that Slovakia lack players who can beat opponents in "one-on-one attacking situations", a comment which implicates, among others, his own son. Vladimír Weiss Junior and Miroslav Stoch have reputations as quick and tricky wide players but both have had a difficult last month or so. Stoch was omitted from the squad for the Austria game after being arrested for drink-driving in his home town of Nitra, while Weiss Junior, aware that his first-team prospects at Manchester City were looking non-existent, claimed that Ally McCoist had gone back on a promise to sign him up for another loan period at Rangers. Stoch has now been given a "second and last chance" by the older Weiss and young Vladimír should be feeling happier with life, having agreed to join Espanyol for the rest of the season. If either player hits form against Ireland, Weiss Senior will feel his criticisms were well-directed.
Tonight's game will be the first qualifier Weiss Senior has overseen since he became coach of Slovakia's domestic champions, Slovan Bratislava, whom he has just guided to a surprise Europa League victory over Roma, and he will be keen to justify his claims that he can successfully juggle the two jobs. The Slovan post has already proved distracting enough for Weiss to delay naming his squad for the Ireland game (and the home fixture with Armenia which follows), yet you still feel that the Irish will find his team tough adversaries. Slovakia have been described as "limited" or "prosaic" plenty of times in the three years Weiss has been in charge but they have also won enough important games against more feted opponents to suggest that under-estimating them would be unwise. James Baxter