Jan Kozak’s team have disciplinary problems and are struggling to score but Martin Skrtel’s return is a boost and Group F remains wide open
10 October ~ If England required any reassurance that qualifying for the 2018 World Cup would not be among the greater challenges posed by Sam Allardyce’s downfall, the tendency of the rest of the teams in Group F to take points off each other is already providing it. Two of these sides, Slovakia and Scotland, meet in Trnava on Tuesday, and both are in need of a win to salvage any satisfaction from this qualifying week.
Slovakia’s 1-0 defeats to England and Slovenia are not so much their biggest problem at the moment as a symptom of it. Since their departure from France after their creditable Euro 2016 showing, discipline and harmony appear to have disappeared.
Firstly, wide-midfielder Miroslav Stoch was indefinitely excluded following an incident on the flight home from the championship. It has not been specified what this was but, reading between the lines, it seems to have involved a physical and/or verbal confrontation with coach Jan Kozak, who insists Stoch will never return while he is in charge.
Ahead of the England game last month, Juraj Kucka further irritated Kozak by expressing support for Stoch on social media. "Hang on in there Miro‚ you’re not the only one who made a mistake," wrote the AC Milan midfielder. The turning-point of the England match itself was the sending-off of Martin Skrtel for a cowardly stamp on Harry Kane.
This incident later prompted fellow centre-back Jan Durica to make the ludicrous assertion that Slovakia had lost because of the refereeing, which, he claimed, was symptomatic of a worldwide conspiracy to favour the "bigger nations". Skrtel was duly given a one-game ban, Durica a €5,000 (£4,500) fine.
Then, in the early hours of last Sunday morning, just before the squad was due to meet ahead of the Slovenia game, Vladimir Weiss was arrested by police for refusing to perform a breath-test after being stopped while driving his Mercedes. He was effectively suspended by the Slovak FA until his case is resolved.
Injuries to four squad regulars have only increased Slovakia’s difficulties. Kozak’s solution for the Slovenia game was to field a 3-5-1-1 formation. This worked in that the hosts were allowed only two clear chances. The problem was that they converted one of these, while Robert Mak missed Slovakia‘s only opportunity.
With Skrtel available again on Tuesday, it is likely that Slovakia will line up in a more familiar 4-2-3-1 against the Scots. There must also be at least the possibility that Adam Nemec, the only striker in the squad to have scored international goals in competitive fixtures, will be given a start.
Slovakia have lacked a consistent goalscorer for some years now. This was not really an issue during qualifying for Euro 2016, when a counter-attacking style and the creative talents of Kucka, Weiss, Mak and Marek Hamsik at least ensured a steady stream of chances. Hamsik is the only one of these four to have maintained both discipline and reasonable form.
However, if sides can neutralise his influence, as Slovenia did quite effectively, Slovakia look extremely limited going forward. Kozak is well aware of this, and also admits that the players' minds "are not quite where they should be at present". He is not shielding them from the importance of the Scotland game either, adding that "we will be at home, we will play differently and we need three points".
Scotland might have felt the pressure of needing a home win themselves against Lithuania on Saturday. However, if they retain confidence in their ability to make a serious bid for a place in Russia, they surely have to see Tuesday’s game as the ideal opportunity to make up for the loss of those two points. James Baxter