Wednesday, 3 March 2010

Slovakia v. Norway

With 99 days and 7 hours left until the long-awaited kick-off, Slovakia donned slightly redesigned World Cup tops and faced Norway in the first of three pre-WC friendlies. Manager Weiss had to do without a couple of key players, Liverpool's centre-back Martin Škrtel [broken metatarsal] and VfL Bochum's Stanislav Šesták [back injury], whereas Norway's Olsen missed John Carew, sidelined with a knee injury. This game was seen by many as preparation for the must-win game against New Zealand - most fans were not prepared to settle for anything less than a win. Instead, Slovakia displayed its clinical weaknesses, namely sloppy defending and inefficient attack, failing to convert numerous clear-cut chances. The lack of the squad's depth is a constant problem - without Škrtel's support, his fellow centre-back's [Ján Ďurica] performance suffers significantly, and it was after his defensive blunder that Norway scored the only goal of the game. Šesták is similarly influential upfront - afterall, his 6 goals made real difference during the World Cup qualifiers [especially these two against Poland].

Norway's Knudsen (35) had a decent game.

The Game

SVK: Mucha - Pekarík (84. Petráš), Štrba (74. Kopúnek), Ďurica, Zabavník - Karhan - Jendrišek, Sapara (71. Stoch), Weiss (77. Švento) - Hamšík (84. Kozák) - Vittek (61. Hološko).

NOR: Knudsen - Hogli, Wähler, Hangeland (74. Demidov), J.A. Riise - B.H. Riise (62. Skjelbred), Hauger, Grindheim (90. Tettey), Pedersen - Moldskred (84. Ruud), Braaten (62. Huseklepp).

Vittek's impact was minimal.

Weiss fielded a 4-1-3-1-1 formation, with defensive midfielder Štrba replacing Škrtel [it was done before, in Slovakia's final qualifier against Poland] and Vittek playing upfront. Given his height, Vittek's inclusion in the starting XI meant that Weiss anticipated a physical game- the Norwegian defended extremely well and often filled the box with their own players as their opponent stormed forward.

Mucha kept Slovakia in the game.

The first 30 minutes of the game were dominated by Norway, and Slovakia's keeper Mucha once again confirmed his qualities and was not short of luck either - Braaten's shot in the 20th minute hit the post. On the other side of the pitch, Štrba was close to scoring on two occasions, failing to dispatch the ball into the empty net in front of him [in fact, failing to hit it completely] and Norway's Knudsen showed some impressive reflexes in dealing with his header in the 39th minute. Slovakia was the more active team in the final 10 minutes of the first half and it was Marek Sapara's free kick [most definitely intended to be a pass, not a shot] marked Knudsen's post.

Ďurica was a liability.
Slovakia failed to maintain the pressure and Norway punished Ďurica's mistake in the 67th minute - Mucha managed to deal with Huseklepp's shot, but only watched helplessly as Moldskred converted the rebound. Slovakia was forced to open up the game and nearly conceded again after another poor display from the back four - Grindheim's one-on-one [83rd minute] was dealt with and Moldskred was on this occasion less successful with the rebound. Four minutes later Hološko's header hit only Knudsen and Norway came, once again, close to scoring yet again, but Skjelbred was prevented from making the most out of Huseklepp's breakthrough by the excellent Mucha - Slovakia's man of the match.

Moldenskred scored the only goal of the game.
The Analysis 
Slovakia failed to repeat its impressive performances from the autumn qualifiers against the Czech Republic and Northern Ireland, showing other Group F teams the extent to which two injuries can disrupt their future opponent's game. Mucha's performance was meticulous, yet the lack of a reliable centre-back was fully exposed. Although Zabavník [Mainz/left-back] as well as Pekarík [Wolfsburg/right-back] were not shy of going forward, Ďurica, who is still on cold streak [just ask any Hannover 96 fan], kept leaving the back door open, making Norwegian counter-attacks too easy. Hamšík the playmaker was not given much space by the Norwegians and Weiss Jr., surprisingly preferred to Stoch on the left wing, had a mixed game, often upsetting the rhytm by messing up crucial passes and making a number of unnecessary stepovers - he still has a long way to go.

The real winner of this friendly is, however, New Zealand, as Norway made it clear that a combination of solid goalkeeping, disciplined defensive performance and deadly counter-attacks is the way forward against the Slovaks, especially when they are missing one or two key players. With only two games left [Ghana on 29/05 and Costa Rica on 05/06] for that painstaking tweaking, there are still many loose screws in Slovakia's engine and worryingly little time left.
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