Robert Koren: 'We will think about ourselves, not England'

He was released by West Brom, but Slovenia’s playmaker Robert Koren tells Phil Shaw he can help shock Capello's side
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The Independent Online

Ask Robert Koren to talk about the tiny, picturesque republic of Slovenia and he morphs from the captain of the national team into the acting minister for tourism, waxing lyrical about the skiing, the sunshine, the beaches, the street cafés and bars and the easy-going people.

Press him about the Slovenians' prospects in the World Cup – where they are in the same group as England – and the former West Bromwich Albion midfielder begins waxing miracle.

Slovenia has barely two million inhabitants, compared with England's 52 million, the United States' 310 million and Algeria's 35 million. But Koren, 29, draws on the experience of having overcome Russia (population 142 million) in a play-off for a place in South Africa to warn that small can be bountiful as well as beautiful.

"When we played Russia we didn't think, 'Arshavin is coming' or 'Zhirkov is there'," Koren said. "It'll be the same with England. We will think about ourselves; we have Robert Koren, Milivoje Novakovic, Valter Birsa. Everyone expects them to go through and we're coming into this as underdogs. I'm saying now that England will struggle. If they drop a level they'll struggle against us."

He has good reason to believe it could be close when Slovenia tackle England in Port Elizabeth in the final Group C fixture. Quite apart from their two-leg triumph over Russia, they lost only 2-1 at Wembley last year, when Koren and his compatriots found enough space between England's midfield and back four to concern Fabio Capello.

Koren was released by Albion after helping them gain promotion back to the Premier League. He is likely to be listed as "unattached" during the finals but remains confident Slovenia will improve on their three defeats in three group games in 2002.

In Japan and South Korea, their attempts to build on a respectable showing at Euro 2000 were undermined by a falling-out between the coach, Srecko Katanec, and Slovenia's most celebrated footballer, Zlatko Zahovic. This time, Koren insists, the watchword is unity.

"Zahovic was a star [in 2002]. The rest of us weren't recognised. In this team we are all good friends. We do everything for each other – very different to the last time, when it was one player shining. In Slovenia, everyone talks about 'The Team', not individuals."

The emphasis on the collective spirit may be a diversionary tactic – Novakovic's five goals in qualifying suggests there are performers of international quality in Matjaz Kek's squad – yet in Koren's view it was crucial to the elimination of Russia. "When we were drawn against them in the play-offs, we all rang each other. We were not afraid."

Zlatko Dedic scored the winner and Slovenia advanced on the away-goals rule. "I've watched the first half six or seven times. It was so good. Now we can say anything's possible in football."

Including beating England? Koren resists any hostage-to-fortune boasts but was encouraged by last November's friendly. "We showed we can pass the ball well and people saw that we could cope with this level.

Media pressure and the weight of public expectation could be detrimental to England, he added, having been much in demand for his own thoughts lately. "The media keeps saying to me, 'It's England, Rooney and Lampard...' But it's simple: we don't care. We don't care if it's Rooney or Messi. We'll prepare properly, like a team. Then let's see what happens."

Back in Slovenia, there is no such clamour. "We're a small country and really proud of it," Koren said, doing his tourism hard-sell again. "We're more relaxed than the English. We're quite chilled. Say if someone was late for a meeting, it wouldn't be a big issue like in England. We have good summers, so people like to be in bars, drink coffee, sit in the sun. You should look it up on the internet."