Group F: Slovakia
The World Cup debutants have Marek Hamsik and a kind draw but have to overcome injury and inconsistency, writes Neil Billingham.
In qualifying for their first major tournament as an independent nation, Slovakia has ended 34 years of hurt.
After providing nine of the players for Czechoslovakia in their defeat of West Germany in the final of the 1976 European Championship Final in Belgrade, the achievements of Slovak football had slipped into anonymity. While Czech midfielder Antonin Panenka grabbed the headlines for his legendary chipped penalty in the shoot-out in the 1976 final the Czechs also went on to taste more success after the Ã¢ÂÂVelvet DivorceÃ¢ÂÂ of Czechoslovakia in 1994. Which is why the SlovakÃ¢ÂÂs 2-1 victory in Prague last year and subsequent qualification for South Africa 2010 was all the sweeter.
Ã¢ÂÂOur country is very proud,Ã¢ÂÂ says Miroslav Karhan, SlovakiaÃ¢ÂÂs most capped player. Ã¢ÂÂQualifying for the World Cup is important for the identity of our young nation but we know itÃ¢ÂÂs going to be hard work to perform well in South Africa.Ã¢ÂÂ
Away victories in qualifying against the Czechs, Poland, Northern Ireland and San Marino came about thanks to a combination of experienced campaigners and talented youngsters. The likes of Karhan and striker Robert Vittek provided stability while Liverpool defender Martin Skrtel and Napoli midfielder Marek Hamsik offered a touch of class. The coachÃ¢ÂÂs son Vladimir Weiss also made an impact in qualifying and gave the team another attacking edge.
Ã¢ÂÂ¨Much responsibility for SlovakiaÃ¢ÂÂs success will fall on the shoulders of 22-year-old Marek Hamsik and the coach knows it. Ã¢ÂÂHe is a world class player,Ã¢ÂÂ says Weiss. Ã¢ÂÂWith Marek in the team the playersÃ¢ÂÂ heads donÃ¢ÂÂt go down and weÃ¢ÂÂve turned a few games around because of thatÃ¢ÂÂ.
Coach Vladimir Weiss has engendered a great spirit within the squad that thrives on playing the role of underdog.
The draw has also been kind to Slovakia. They may be up against reigning champions Italy but they open their campaign against minnows New Zealand before what is likely to be a crucial match against Paraguay. Ã¢ÂÂThe Paraguay match is likely to decide who will qualify for the second stage and I think the second stage is a realistic target for us,Ã¢ÂÂ says Miroslav Karhan. It is, but much will depend on who is fit and in form come their first match on June 15.
The big problem facing Weiss Senior is that few of his players are playing regularly with their clubs. Skrtel broke his foot in February and will be short of match fitness. Weiss Junior has failed to make an impact at Manchester City or in his loan spell at Bolton. Striker Stanislas Sestak is injury prone, and even captain Vittek was rumoured to have been one of the last names on the squad sheet.
Despite winning their qualifying group, the two defeats to Slovenia offered a worrying insight into the inconsistency of the team and Slovak sports teams have a history of freezing on the big occasion.
Coach Vladimir Weiss's dad and player Vladimir Weiss's grandad (also Vladimir) played for Czechoslovakia.
The Coach: Vladimir Weiss
Massively popular coach who, after successful spells with Artmedia Bratislava, has given the national team a hard edge that it never possessed before. The 46-year-old will be the youngest coach in South Africa and has taken a set of players who arenÃ¢ÂÂt always first choice for their clubs and got the best out of them. His hard work, spirit and occasional genius will ensure Slovakia will be resolute and awkward opponents this summer.
Key Player: Marek Hamsik
Napoli midfielder Hamsik is already on the radar of many of EuropeÃ¢ÂÂs top clubs and a good World Cup could see his transfer value soar.
Probable Team (4-2-3-1): Mucha; Pekarik, Durica, Skrtel, Zabavnik; Strba, Karhan; Weiss, Hamsik, Stoch; Sestak
New Zealand, June 15, 12.30pm, Rustenburg
Paraguay, June 20, 12.30pm, Bloemfontein
Italy, June 24, 3pm, Johannesburg
Qualified Top of UEFA Group Three
Northern Ireland (H) 2-1
Slovenia (A) 1-2
San Marino (A) 1-3
Poland (H) 2-1
Czech Republic (A) 2-1
San Marino (H) 7-0
Czech Republic (H) 2-2
Northern Ireland (A) 2-0
Slovenia (H) 0-2
Poland (A) 1-0
World Cup record
2010 First appearance