Team have been surprise in Euro 2016 qualifying so far

icon slovakia3 September ~ Two teams have maximum points after six rounds of Euro 2016 qualifying. That England are one is not a huge surprise given the strength of Group E. In contrast, Slovakia’s 100 per cent record in a group containing Spain and Ukraine was not widely foreseen. Yet the surprise now would be if the Slovaks, who face both their main rivals over the coming week, Spain in Oviedo on Saturday and Ukraine in Zilina next Tuesday, fail to advance to the tournament proper.

Slovakia’s two complete qualifying campaigns since their creditable showing at the 2010 World Cup have been failures. The first, for Euro 2012, led by Vladimir Weiss, started to go wrong after two opening wins – only Andorra were beaten in the following eight matches. Joint coaches Stanislav Griga and Michal Hipp were in charge of the initial effort to reach the 2014 World Cup, but were sacked following a 1-1 draw in Liechtenstein in June 2013. Jan Kozak, their replacement, was unable to redeem that campaign, but results in this one have earned him the decided admiration of an often sceptical Slovak public.

Prior to his appointment, opinion on Kozak was divided. One of the abilities he had demonstrated in club coaching – improving under-performing teams – definitely looked relevant. Some fans also relished his notoriously volatile temper, thinking it might be useful in keeping certain egos in the national squad under control. On the downside, he seemed to lack a range of experience, having only ever coached teams in eastern Slovakia, his native region. His temper looked like a potential problem too. His spells in club coaching had been marked by numerous appearances before the Slovak FA’s disciplinary commission, as well as by the occasional confrontational press conference. Would he be able to cope with the increased scrutiny at international level?

As so often happens, the truth about Kozak is more complex than the image. He certainly doesn’t look sophisticated, with his unkempt hair and ruddy, countryman’s complexion, but he has a keen tactical brain and a good understanding of how players’ minds work. His formation tends not to deviate from 4-2-3-1, but clever variations are tried within the framework, such as the occasional deployment of Marek Hamsik as a centre-forward rather than as a playmaker.

Kozak also has a fine record of trusting young players. Slovakia’s starting midfield three for a March friendly against the Czech Republic had only one previous start between them. Yet the two debutants combined for the game’s only goal, Jan Gregus supplying the pass and Ondrej Duda the finish. Duda and another youngster, Patrik Hrosovsky, were also sent on to help hold the midfield together in the closing stages of June’s 2-1 win over Macedonia.

The coach has called up players based in 13 different countries for the Spain and Ukraine games. This variety of experience is also a contributory factor to the team’s success. There are one or two stars; Hamsik, for example, would get into just about any international squad in Europe. But Kozak’s side is also a collective where the likes of 32 year-old Zilina midfielder Viktor Pecovsky, who has never played club football outside Slovakia, or Ľubomir Michalik, now with Dunajska Streda following spells in the English lower leagues and in Kazakhstan, are made to feel as valued as the big names.

Kozak will need that squad strength in the coming fixtures, since Martin Skrtel and Juraj Kucka are suspended for the Spain game, while Jan Durica and Vladimir Weiss Jr, both regular starters over the last year or so, are injured. Any result other than defeat in Oviedo would be a bonus, but Slovakia are certainly hopeful of achieving the win over Ukraine that would almost secure qualification. James Baxter

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