Slovakia stepping out of Czech shadow

Slovakia are one point away from qualifying for their first World Cup after upstaging group favourites and former countrymen Czech Republic thanks to a coach who has developed their discipline and mental strength.

Slovakia need only a draw against second-placed Slovenia at home on Saturday to book their place at next year's finals as surprise European qualifying Group Three winners.

Since the 1993 breakup of Czechoslovakia, the Czechs have achieved the more footballing success, qualifying for the 2006 World Cup as well as the Euro 96 final and Euro 2004 semis.

By shocking their experienced neighbours 2-1 in Prague in April Slovakia stepped out of their arch rivals' shadow and started to believe they could make it to South Africa.

"That was the game when we really thought 'right, we can do it'. I think that was the turning point," midfielder Vladimir Weiss, son of the Slovakia coach of the same name, told Reuters.

"I think we got a lot of confidence. Not everyone can win against Czech Republic at their ground, we made it."

Slovakia top the group with 19 points from eight matches, five ahead of Slovenia. Third-placed Northern Ireland also have 14 but have played a game more, while Czech Republic (12) and Poland (11) are still in the hunt for the runner-up spot.

Saturday's scenario of the 45th-ranked team in the world battling for group supremacy against the 54th-ranked Slovenians was unimaginable when the qualifying campaign started.

"Neither of us was the favourites, that was Poland and Czech Republic," coach Weiss told Pravda newspaper.

"In a year that situation has changed."

Former Czechoslovakia and Slovakia international Weiss, 45, has been widely credited for turning a modest team into a well organised outfit ripe for their first major international tournament as an independent country.

He has developed a reputation as something of a miracle worker with ordinary teams after leading Slovak club Artmedia Petrzalka to the group stage of the Champions League for the first time in 2005/06.

His son, who has started the last two qualifiers and scored against Northern Ireland, said Weiss had instilled a previously lacking discipline among players since taking the job last year.

"He is very strict as a manager and that's what helped," the younger Weiss said.

"He brought something into the team that I don't think any other manager brought before. He has players' respect, they try to concentrate."

BIG IMPROVEMENT

Few members of the team play their club football in Slovakia, a fact that 19-year-old Manchester City player Weiss said had played a major part in improving the national side.

"A lot of players in the team are playing abroad, in the French league, in the German league, so I think there has been a big improvement in Slovakian players. I think we're a strong team, I think our mentality is better," he said. "I think if a player is playing abroad when they play for Slovakia they enjoy it a little bit more."

Liverpool defender Martin Skrtel, Napoli midfielder Marek Hamsik and West Bromwich Albion defender Marek Cech are among the regulars in a squad devoid of really big names.

Ice hockey-mad Slovakia has jumped on the soccer bandwagon, with tickets for the Slovenia match at Tehelne Pole selling out online in four minutes according to the football association.

If the Slovaks, who were defeated 2-1 in Maribor just over a year ago, lose to the Slovenians again, they will get another chance to qualify when they travel to Poland on Wednesday for their final group match.

"Only Slovenia have been able to defeat us in this campaign, but I expect our team will prove themselves by taking the last step. I trust my players," coach Weiss told uefa.com.