Rooney's 'friendly' challenge fuels Slovenian desire for sweet revenge

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The Independent Online

The aftermath of John Terry's attempted rebellion had yet to hit the Slovenian media yesterday but it did not really need to. Their former international playmaker Zlatko Zahovic has reflected a prevailing view among some in the nation's footballing circles by making it clear that he believes the England players are "an explosive group" who are difficult to manage.

Zahovic, a major authority on these matters having stormed out of the 2002 World Cup in South Korea after rowing with the then Slovenia coach Srecko Katanec, has also described Fabio Capello's squad as "a difficult group of people," adding that "they are famous and fantastically paid." He concluded: "It is hard for such characters to spend a month together. Capello knows that and he keeps peace with a dictator-like approach."

These observations were offered up far from the public press conference yesterday where there was little but diplomacy from manager Matjaz Kek, but Zahovic's language told of a country which has, in a footballing sense, held a nine-month grudge against England.

It has simmered since a penalty area tussle at Wembley in a 2-1 friendly defeat last September. Wayne Rooney emerged from it with a penalty in his favour; Bostjan Cesar with a yellow card and an ankle injury which kept him out for two months. Robert Koren, the Slovenia captain, has already remarked that "the reaction from the English players was not positive. We know that. We remember that."

Zahovic's cool destruction of the great England myth, as he appears to see it, included the observation that they lack strength in depth. "England, in my opinion, has 12 to 13 world-class players. Those are better than players on our team," he said. "But their 14th player is worse than our 23rd.

Players from West Ham, Portsmouth or Sunderland would find it hard to break into the starting XI at Maribor [the Slovenian club where he is director of football]. I am dead serious. It seems that [Theo] Walcott is currently even worse than those players, that would have problems playing in the Slovenian league."

Zahovic's depiction of the autocratic Capello was one of unintended irony, since Kek's controlling influences are a supreme source of frustration to the Slovenian press. Kek had only agreed to make squad players available at press conferences before yesterday.

The two managers' similarities run far deeper, which is hardly surprising, given that the England manager knows at least as much about Slovenia as the nation which has become his £6m-a-year employer.

Capello was born into a ethnic melting pot in north-west Italy, Bisiacheria, where Slovenians loyal to the nascent Yugoslavia and its leader Josip Tito, killed hundreds of Italians after the Second World War. It was his father, Guerrino, who tried to play the peacemaker back then. And though Capello's career took him far from his birthplace, he returns often. During the career he has developed between jobs as an excellent football pundit, Capello worked for the Italian-speaking Slovenian radio station, Koper.

Slovenians on the border do not have a great love of Italians though. It is a source of irritation to some that the bilingual road signs on the Slovenia side are not replicated across the boundary in Italy. Another reason, perhaps, to invoke the spirit of the underdog tomorrow in Port Elizabeth as Kek - whom the Slovenian media suspect might switch the outstanding talent of Valter Birsa to the left to attack the perceived defensive weakness of Glen Johnson - seeks the point which would take his side through.

Birsa, who generally operates on the right, is undoubtedly the player England must watch; the only individual with flair in the Slovenian midfield, whose goal against the United States was the only scored from outside the box without the aid of a deflection in the tournament before yesterday. David James beware.

There are few surprises in Kek's team-sheets though. His players draw comfort from the manager's unwillingness to veer away from his first-choice side, though with midfielder Nejc Pecnik out injured for the rest of the tournament, more responsibility has been heaped on Koren and Birsa.On the face of things, Slovenia are displaying a joy to be here which England palpably lack at the moment. The players' pre-tournament dispute about their bonuses was put behind them with a sum of around £3m agreed upon and a bizarre Slovenian goal celebration now has them throwing their hands up in the air and singing something indecipherable about one of their teammates.Kek, known for his love of jazz and rock and a one-time DJing career on local radio, will not allow them to reveal which player that might be and, to a man, they have fallen in line. A slightly less "explosive" group than England, it seems

Slovenia: mighty minnows

*Population: 2.05 million

*GDP: $57.741 billion

*Area: 20,273 sq km – smallest nation to qualify for the World Cup.

*First game as an independent nation: 1-1 draw v Estonia on 3 June 1992

*Current Fifa ranking (as of May 2010): 25 (England: 8)

*Biggest Win: 7-0 over Oman in Feb1999 (England: 13-0 over Ireland in Feb 1882)

*Biggest Defeat: 5-0 v France, 2002 (England: 7-1 v Hungary, May 1954)

*Most Capped Player: Zlatko Zahovic (above) 80 (England: Peter Shilton 125)

Will England win?

England play Slovenia tomorrow needing victory to be sure of progressing to the knockout stage of the World Cup. What do our football experts in South Africa think will happen when Fabio Capello's moment of truth arrives?



James Lawton: England will win, probably by two goals, and emerge with those familiar expressions of hurt and self-justification. They will have been victims of media excess and national hysteria. Let's hope, then, that they can overcome their disappointment with all such failures of perception and make a passable imitation of a serious, grown-up football team. But let's not hold our breath.

Sam Wallace: I hope I am wrong but I have a dreadful feeling that tomorrow will be England's last game at the World Cup. Capello has been quite honest: he is at a loss at how to turn around a group of players who are playing without confidence. Their form has gone, simple as that. It happens in football and it happens a lot to England.

Ian Herbert: It happens every time: they stutter, we panic, they recover, we breathe again. England will comfortably ease past Slovenia because they have to. As runners-up in Group C they will avoid Germany and play Serbia in Bloemfontein on Sunday. Then it will all come unstuck in a quarter-final against Argentina in Cape Town.

Glenn Moore: No one, especially not Fabio Capello, knows if England will be able to throw off the straightjacket of fear which has enveloped them in this World Cup. England have better players than Slovenia, but seem weighed down by expectation, introspection, and self-pity. England to draw, and go out.

Tim Rich: England will beat Slovenia probably quite comfortably. England habitually begin World Cup campaigns slowly and this has echoes of 1986 when Bobby Robson's side delivered two dreadful performances before being persuaded by his players to make radical changes that saw them overwhelm Poland 3-0 in the final group game. Expect something similar on Wednesday night. But as for the latter stages of the tournament – don't expect too much.

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