Slovakia has become the home of one of Europe’s most unpredictable national teams, with experienced coach Jan Kozak leading his side to wins against Spain, Switzerland and Ukraine, as well as defeat at home to Belarus. Confidence has spread throughout a squad which has now been together for a long time.
Lesson from qualifying
Keep your nerve. Slovakia came storming out of the blocks in qualifying, winning six out of six, including a 2-1 victory over European champions Spain. But as a spot in the finals grew closer, they stumbled to two defeats and a draw in their next three.
They have a solid defence marshalled by captain Martin Skrtel, two strong holding midfielders in Juraj Kucka and Viktor Pecovsky, and a true leader in attack: playmaker and captain Marek Hamsik.
The back four aren’t quick – music to the ears of Gareth Bale and Jamie Vardy – and with 34-year-old Robert Vittek showing his age, there’s no out-and-out goalscorer.
Most likely to...
Do what they did in South Africa in 2010: underperform against the group’s weaker teams before saving the best for last against a traditional superpower.
Least likely to...
Draw 0-0 with Wales. The pair’s two meetings in Euro 2008 qualifying produced no fewer than 13 goals.
What they hope will happen
Put simply: qualification for the last 16.
What will happen
With that ageing backline, Slovakia will struggle to repeat their heroics of 2010.
Key player - Marek Hamsik
A fit and firing Marek Hamsik will be key to Slovakia’s fortunes. The 28-year-old Napoli skipper plays a vital role with his vision and creativity, and inspires those around him to improve their own performances. And 17 goals from midfield in 85 games is not to be sniffed at, either.
Manager - Jan Kozak
The former Czech star has been criticised for his eccentricity, but since his arrival in 2013 he has restored belief into a talented squad that was lacking in confidence.
Q&A - Peter Pekarik
What is Slovakia’s goal at this tournament?
The main goal is to advance from a very tough group – that would be a big success. It would be beautiful to repeat our achievement from the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, where we got into the last 16.
Spain hadn’t lost a qualifier for eight years before you beat them in 2014. How special was that?
Beating one of the best teams in the world was a fantastic, unforgettable feeling. Winning the first match of qualification, away in Ukraine, and then winning at home to Spain really increased our confidence going forward.
What do you think of your group in France? Do you have enough quality to beat England?
Our group is really very difficult. England are big favourites, and not only in our match and our group – they can think about winning the whole tournament. But in football, everything is possible – we have convinced ourselves about that many times – so we will wait and see what happens. The match against England could be a surprise. Our dream is to fight and earn second place in the group, which would mean qualification for the next round.
Fixtures and results
June 11, Wales Bordeaux, Midnight
June 15, Russia - Lille, 9pm
June 21, England - Saint-Etienne, 3am
HOW THEY QUALIFIED
Group C runners-up
vs Ukraine (A) 1-0
vs Spain (H) 2-1
vs Belarus (A) 3-1
vs Macedonia (A) 2-0
vs Luxembourg (H) 3-0
vs Macedonia (H) 2-1
vs Spain (A) 0-2
vs Ukraine (H) 0-0
vs Belarus (H) 0-1
vs Luxembourg (A) 4-2
EUROPEAN CHAMPIONSHIP RECORD
Words Lukas Vrablik; Interview Martin Rendek
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