Wembley fails to top Slovaks' priorities list
England's opponents today are focused on a midweek derby with the Czechs and World Cup qualification, writes Glenn Moore
Saturday 28 March 2009
Normally, England's opponents today would be parroting all the usual clichés about what an honour it is to play at the new Wembley, about how they are looking forward to facing Beckham, Rooney, Gerrard etc. Some players would even suggest it is the biggest game of their lives. And, for England's status in the world game is greater than is generally recognised on these shores, they would really mean it.
Not this time. Slovakia have never played in an international tournament, their club teams rarely make a dent in European football, and the only other time they came to England they were sent to play at Middlesbrough. But notwithstanding all that, this evening's match is just a warm-up for them, an appetiser. England may think they have an important match on Wednesday, a World Cup qualifier against Ukraine, but that pales by comparison with Slovakia's Wednesday fixture. They face the Czech Republic, with whom they were not always happily united for most of the last century. It is also a World Cup tie and, with Slovakia leading Group Three, by two points from Northern Ireland, the Czech Republic, Poland and Slovenia, there is plenty at stake.
"It is a huge game," said Martin Skrtel, Liverpool's Slovakian defender. "It's like Liverpool v Everton – a real derby. A lot of Czech people think they are better than us Slovaks. Before Czechoslovakia was broken up, there were 10 million Czechs in the country and only five million of us. Because of that they thought they were better."
Adding spice for many Slovaks is the painful knowledge that their greatest football triumph has, in many people's eyes, gone down in the ledger of the Czech Republic. When, in 1976, Czechoslovakia won the European Championships, having knocked England out in qualifying, seven Slovaks were in the XI that beat West Germany in the final, including key players Marian Masny and Anton Ondrus, and the goalscorers Jan Svehlik and Karol Dobias.
But while the Czechs have prospered since the Velvet Divorce in 1993, reaching the final of Euro 96, the semi-finals in 2004, and the 2006 World Cup, Slovakia have failed to reach a major tournament. Now, though, they have a chance to reach next summer's World Cup finals.
Skrtel is the key player, the only squad member to reach the group stages of the Champions League. Another Premier League-based player has been selected, West Bromwich Albion's reserve full-back Marek Cech, but Chelsea teenager Miroslav Stoch has been omitted. He represents the future, along with Manchester City's Vladimir Weiss, another 19-year-old winger, whose namesake father is national coach.
Weiss Snr, a former Czechoslovakian international, steered Artmedia Petrzalka to the title last season and briefly combined both jobs, but left after the club's wealthy backer, and several players, switched to Bratislava rivals, Slovan.
Weiss is likely to favour a 4-1-4-1 formation with Lille's Robert Vittek in attack with Napoli youngster Marek Hamsik and Rosenborg's Marek Sapara supplying midfield guile. Skrtel, though, carries the heaviest responsibility. Speaking of his country's newly crowned footballer of the year, Weiss said: "Skrtel is a very tough player and he knows how to handle Rooney. We believe he can stop him as he did for Liverpool."
Slovakia lost 2-1 home and away to England in qualifying for Euro 2004, but led both games. In Euro 2008 qualifying, they won 5-1 in Cardiff, then lost 5-2 at home to Wales. In September, they beat Northern Ireland 2-1 ending a run of defeats to middling opponents. So consistency is a problem. How much of a test they are for England may depend on how seriously they take it.
"This is a prestigious game and we would like to have nice memories but the main thing is for us to get points on Wednesday night," said Weiss.
Meet the Slovaks: The danger men
Billed as 'the Slovakian David Beckham', because of the 21-year-old's wing play, rich potential, tattoos and haircut. Chelsea took a look last summer, but Napoli wanted £15m.
Attacking right-back who signed for Bundesliga challengers Wolfsburg for £1m in January. Quick but relatively short (5ft 7in). Was in the Zilina side that won at Villa Park in the Uefa Cup this season. Age 22.
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