Slovakia’s Wales fear comes true as focus moves to Russia

Coach Jan Kozak was wary of Chris Coleman’s team more than other in Group B

13 June ~ Slovakia coach Jan Kozak will take no comfort in the fact, but his team‘s 2-1 defeat to Wales in Bordeaux has enhanced his reputation as a man of wise words. As soon as the draw for the final stages was made last November, Kozak said he was happy enough to be in a group with England and Russia but that Wales were the fourth seeds he really hadn’t wanted.

This year, friendlies with the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland were organised, to get Slovakia used to the “island” way of playing. After both games, which ended in draws, Kozak said that Wales would be similarly strong and organised but with more individual quality.

As the Wales game drew closer, players and staff were at ever greater pains to claim that it would be about more than Marek Hamsik v Gareth Bale. But Slovak TV1, the match broadcaster, were having none of it. During the build-up, three members of the Slovak squad were shown addressing the question of how Bale could be stopped. Stanislav Sestak implied that he couldn’t be. “Bale can do anything,” he said. “When I watch him play, he never seems to lose the ball.”

The first ten minutes of the game itself actually were about Hamsik and Bale, the former being thwarted by a goal-line clearance, the latter opening the scoring from a free-kick. In the end, though, it was more about two substitutions. Ondrej Duda equalised for Slovakia with his first touch, only for Hal Robson-Kanu to restore Wales‘ lead following 20 minutes or so of Slovak dominance.

The STV1 pundits were all agreed that, while Duda and fellow substitute Adam Nemec had vastly improved Slovakia as an attacking force, the withdrawal of holding midfielder Patrik Hrosovsky had opened up space in front of the defence, exploited by Aaron Ramsey as he set up Robson-Kanu’s goal.

Stadium summariser and former international defender Marian Zeman offered the most incisive post-match analysis. Wales, he said, reminded him of how Slovakia had been in qualifying. They had survived periods of pressure, and taken the chances that came their way. Slovakia had not been bad, but they had not been quite as good as they needed to be in any aspect of the game.

Hamsik, meanwhile, performed admirably during his exchange with interviewer Lubos Hlavena, who invited him to criticise himself for missing the early chance, goalkeeper Matus Kozacik for not keeping out Bale‘s free-kick, and the Norwegian referee for booking four Slovaks but no Welshmen. The Napoli midfielder woudn’t be drawn on the referee, but praised Ben Davies for appearing from nowhere to make his clearance and Kozacik for helping ensure Slovakia got to France at all.

As for Kozak, he felt a draw would have been a fair result, but repeated his earlier words about Wales, and suggested that the game had proved them correct. Slovaks will now have to hope that he was as right not to seem too worried about Russia and England. James Baxter