Coach Jan Kozak unapologetic for defensive performance in Saint-Étienne

21 June ~ Slovakia coach Jan Kozak described England as “acceptable” group-stage opponents when the Euro 2016 draw was made last November. He also taunted them with their lack of recent big tournament success after arriving in Ireland for a friendly with the Republic in March. But on Monday night, after an ultra-defensive performance had secured his side a 0-0 draw, Kozak’s delight was obvious. "A point against England in the final stages is something fantastic,” he said. “We’ve proved we can play against anybody.”

Opinions on England also underwent some changes in the studios of STV1, the broadcaster of Slovakia’s Euro 2016 games. After a virtuoso display from Marek Hamsik had earned a 2-1 win over Russia last Wednesday, former Blackburn defender Vratislav Gresko was looking forward with optimism. "We often equate England with the Premier League,” Gresko commented, "but it’s the foreign players who give the Premier League the quality it has. Slovakia can get a result against England.”

Kozak had hinted before the game that he might make changes to the side that had overcome Russia, though it was always difficult to see how the starting line-up would be different. In the event, it wasn’t, but the first 45 minutes of the England game had the STV1 team talking about little but possible substitutions. The main concern was over the lack of defensive support offered by Vladimir Weiss to Tomas Hubocan on Slovakia’s left.

Weiss was eventually moved away from the left to a centre-forward position, and later to the bench, as Slovakia effectively gave up on attacking. They finished the game with seven defenders on the pitch. Such tactics might have been negative, but Kozak was unapologetic."I fielded enough attacking players at the start, but we didn’t have as much possession as I expected," he explained. "England sent on a couple of tall players and we had to react to that. Milan Skriniar and Norbert Gyomber went on so that we could compete in the air."

One lesson to be drawn from that is that, for all the talk about England becoming a less predictable team – and there has been plenty of this in the Slovakia media – foreign coaches still expect them to resort to long-balls when they’re seeking a late goal. 

As for the Slovaks, almost certain qualification for the last 16 as one of the best third-placed finishers will do for now. It was enough at least for the country’s president, Andrej Kiska, to visit the dressing room to congratulate the players after the game. For his part, Kozak did not seem ready to share his pleasure in the result with a head of state. Asked if he had shaken Kiska’s hand, the coach’s reply was brief :"I haven’t been to the dressing room yet," he said. James Baxter 

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