Slovenia vs England: Combative Srecko Katanec has Slovenians believing again

Katanec and highly rated, highly skilled players simply don’t get on, but the new year brought reconciliation with Josip Ilicic

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"We did not speak," said Srecko Katanec in November. "I called him a couple of times but got no answer. I even sent him an SMS. I am sorry that he took everything as a degradation: that was never my intention.

“It’s not necessarily his fault, maybe it is me, that I cannot motivate him. Maybe that was all a part of my tactics, that maybe he would be lifted by everything, that he would go to Wembley, score and say, ‘F*** you, coach’.”

And so, it seemed, the pattern repeated. This time it was Josip Ilicic with whom Slovenia’s spiky coach had fallen out: at the 2002 World Cup it had been Zlatko Zahovic; when he was FYR Macedonia coach it was Goran Pandev. Katanec and highly rated, highly skilled players simply don’t get on. After the 1-0 defeat by Estonia in September, Katenec dropped Ilicic, who then decided to retire from international football. That’s why he missed Slovenia’s 3-1 defeat by England at Wembley, but the new year brought reconciliation and now the Fiorentina playmaker is back.

“I’m happy,” Katanec said last week when asked about Ilicic’s good form in Serie A. “And if he does it against England I’ll be very happy.”

It may be that Slovenia are also back after a desperate run of form since qualifying for the 2010 World Cup by beating Russia in a play-off. A row over bonuses soured the tournament. When Matjaz Kek was sacked as coach after the failure to qualify for Euro 2012 and replaced by Slavisa Stojanovic, he dropped the captain Robert Koren and the experienced centre-forward Milivoje Novakovic, making the goalkeeper Samir Handanovic his captain. Poor results led to Stojanovic being sacked and the return of Katanec, who, after leading Slovenia to qualification for Euro 2000 and the 2002 World Cup, had been appointed at Olympiakos. He left Greece after an undistinguished year and subsequent spells in charge of Macedonia and the UAE didn’t reach the heights he had achieved with Slovenia.

There are signs, though, of the old magic beginning to return.

Although Koren has stayed in retirement, Novakovic is back to lead the line. Handanovic, who never seemed comfortable with the media, returned to the ranks and Bostjan Cesar, the Chievo centre-back who played for West Brom, was named in his place.

The Estonia defeat was a major setback, but since then Katanec has managed to instil the sort of organisation that characterised Slovenia at their best. The sacrifice of Ilicic perhaps was of symbolic value and to hammer home the point that there was no way but Katanec’s way. A home win over Switzerland might have been fortuitous, but it undid the damage of the defeat in Tallinn. More than that it inspired a new sense of belief. The 2-0 win in Lithuania, both goals coming from Novakovic, maintained the momentum while underlining Katanec’s tactical acuity.

In that first spell in charge of Slovenia, Katanec seemed a lucky coach: opposing goalkeepers would scuff clearances, as Ukraine’s Oleksandr Shovkovskiy did in the play-off for Euro 2000 qualification, or forwards who hadn’t scored in 52 internationals would produce a goal at a key moment, as Mladen Rudonja did in the 2002 World Cup qualifying play-off against Romania. There are those such as Milenko Acimovic, the former Tottenham striker who benefited from that Shovkovskiy error, who wonder if the timing of this fixture again showcases Katanec’s good luck.

“The English have already gone a long time without matches,” he said. “It’s the toughest championship and now they’ve had a holiday. I think Slovenia should be fresher and more motivated. We’re playing them at the right time.”

Novakovic is 36 now, but remains an awkward if not too mobile leader of the line. The likelihood is that he will play as a lone front man in a 4-4-1-1, with Ilicic creating behind him. Jasmin Kurtic, of Fiorentina, and Ales Mertelj, the only player in the side from the Slovenian champions Maribor, are likely to be used as a defensive block in midfield. That probably means dangerous wide men Andraz Kirm and Valter Birsa completing a four-man midfield. That, though, would mean no place for Kevin Kampl, the energetic 24-year-old who joined Borussia Dortmind from Red Bull Salzburg this summer.

Katanec probably has three top-class players at his disposal, but two of them are goalkeepers. The 31-year-old Handanovic is the clear first choice, despite a shaky couple of months at Internazionale, but it may not be long before he is seriously challenged by Jan Oblak, the 22-year-old who helped Benfica to the Europa League final last season before joining Atletico Madrid, where he has largely been a reserve.

That’s an issue, though, for the future. For now the focus is on getting a result against England that keeps the pressure on Switzerland for the second qualifying spot.

“June is a delicate time,” insisted Katanec. “Even for England.”