Despite losing star player Kevin Kampl, controversially to fatigue, Slovenia’s defeat of Slovakia in their previous match means they can relax a bit against Gareth Southgate’s team
11 October ~ Before the game against Slovakia on Saturday, Slovenian supporters were subdued about their chances in back-to-back fixtures against Group F's two top seeds. But the mood has lifted considerably following a confident display that yielded a 1-0 win.
The Slovenes were already concerned about playing the two strongest teams in the space of 72 hours, but their expectations were further dampened by the last-minute withdrawal of Bayer Leverkusen’s Kevin Kampl, who cited fatigue as his reason for not joining up with the squad in Ljubljana.
Kampl’s decision has drawn the ire of some former players and managers in the press, but a lot of the heat was taken out of the situation by Rok Kronaveter’s assured finish and the subsequent securing of all three points against Slovakia.
Former national team boss Bojan Prasnikar, who is never slow to criticise Srecko Katanec’s current stewardship, went so far as to suggest that the furore surrounding Kampl’s absence has helped the team – the stress making them more alert to deal with the upcoming challenge.
Slovenian football as a whole is in a state of flux at the moment. Alongside erstwhile FA president Aleksander Ceferin’s unexpected ascent to the top job in European football, the national team are undergoing a period of transition. A number of the players who took the country to the 2010 World Cup have moved on and the team continue to be a slightly imbalanced blend of young and old.
Saturday's scorer Kronaveter is a latecomer to the national team, having made his debut in May at the age of 29. Seemingly in a hurry after his belated arrival on the international scene, Kronaveter scored within two minutes of coming on as a second half substitute against Slovakia.
Aside from the gifted but absent Kampl, the most talented member of the current crop is probably Fiorentina’s attacking midfielder Josip Ilicic, who faced Joe Hart in the Torino goal at the beginning of this month.
Hart will also be well aware of Atlético Madrid’s Jan Oblak in the Slovenia goal. The country has an excellent recent record of producing top-quality keepers, and following the international retirement of Inter’s Samir Handanovic, Slovenia are blessed with an even more promising prospect in the form of Oblak.
The old guard are represented by Chievo's goal-scoring defender Bostjan Cesar and winger Valter Birsa, who was perhaps over-burdened by expectation earlier in his career, notably being scapegoated in a Milan team that lost its way during the reigns of Max Allegri and Clarence Seedorf.
Up front, the veteran Milivoje Novakovic has returned from his globe-trotting for a last hurrah at Maribor. Novakovic knows where to find the English net, having opened the scoring when the teams met in June 2015 – in a match England eventually won.
In a group that, managerial mayhem notwithstanding, England look likely to breeze through, the Slovenes will expect Slovakia and Scotland to be their direct competitors for second place and a potential play-off. Having overcome their first test against one of those teams on Saturday, Slovenia might hope to spring a surprise against England but the result against Slovakia has taken a lot of the tension out of the fixture. Jaimie Henderson