Monday, 7 June 2010

Slovakia v. Costa Rica

A visit to the Pasienky stadium on a warm Saturday afternoon brought back memories from more recent as well as more distant past. Pasienky [Slovak for "pastures"] used to house Inter Bratislava, a club that provided Slovakia with much of its exciting young talent in the late 1990s and the early 2000s [see this "7560 Minutes Later" article for more detail - subheading "Mirage 2000"], a club where three Vladimír Weisses spent parts of their football careers [the eldest won a silver medal at the 1964 Olympic football tournament; Senior is Slovakia's current manager; Junior one of the rising stars of Slovak football], a club that sold its major players and, some years later, ceased its existence, a situation that was repeated earlier on this year with the legendary Artmedia Bratislava. Pasienky is also the last remaining stadium in Bratislava - Artmedia's old stadium was sold for "property development", whereas Tehelné Pole, located just across the road from Pasienky, is awaiting its demolition and should rise from the ashes as the new "National Football Stadium". All in all, it was a very symbolic place for concluding Slovakia's World Cup preparations and Costa Rica, that recently narrowly lost to France [1:2] and beat another World Cup side Switzerland [1:0], seemed like a decent-enough opponent.

Official poster

Weiss had promised to show that his team can attack and the Slovaks played offensively right from the start. Stoch looked in fine form on the left and his shot in the 4th minute was slightly deflected and missed the goal, with Vittek's volley after the subsequent corner doing just the same and missing an empty net in the process. 10,000 fans held their breath as Škrtel was lying on the pitch in the 15th minute, holding his previously injured right handle and punching the grass. He limped off and was replaced by Saláta. [His injury did not prove to be serious and he should play in Slovakia's opening game against the All Whites].

Škrtel injury scare

Škrtel's injury did not make Slovakia lose any of its momentum and a goal followed shortly - all it took was a short corner between Stoch and Weiss, Slovakia's 20-year old wingers, with the latter making it past his marker and dispatching a pass towards the goal. Although the ball did not reach any Slovakian player it still ended up behind Navas's back - courtesy of Sequeira. See the whole situation here [turn your volume down - I failed to find a better video].

The Costa Ricans did not fold and Hernandez as well as Urena had their chances but it was yet again Slovakia that came painfully close to scoring - Hamšík and Šesták showed some good chemistry and Šesták's lob made it past the Costa Rican keeper, only to be cleared off the line by his team mate.

Marek Hamšík

Although Slovakia failed to score another on in the first half, the home side started the second half  in an impressive manner and Vittek scored after mere two minutes. Sapara, who replaced Hamšík, dispatched the ball into the box - Šesták's half-volley hit the cross-bar, but Vittek's attempt was a successful one and the Slovaks found themselves 2:0 up - see the goal here.

Slovakia had several chances to make it 3:0, with the most notable one being that of Jendrišek who, following Hološko's pass, had a one-on-one with Costa Rica's keeper but whose finish could not have been any poorer as he failed to lift the ball over Navas.

Slovakia did eventually score after a foul on advancing Weiss inside the box - a penalty followed and Šesták converted it.

Weiss Jr.

Slovakia has not won since beating the United States on 14/11/2009 [1:0] - Weiss's side lost to Chile three days later [1:2], Norway in March [0:1] and recorded a draw against Cameroon a week ago [1:1]. The Cameroon game was all about defending, counter-attacks, and a handful of wasted chances - many doubted whether the players were capable of imposing themselves upon their opponent, dominating the game and, most importantly, converting chances and scoring goals - after all, the last time Slovakia scored more than a goal was in September 2009 [Slovakia - Czech Rep. (2:2)].

Vittek was better than expected

The Pasienky stadium saw a different Slovakia. The Slovaks were good on nearly every front - the defence was solid and coped surprisingly well with the loss of Škrtel. Saláta, who replaced him, plays in the Slovak league but it did not show. The error-prone Ďurica played without making a single mistake, earning the manager's praise with a focused and dedicated performance. Čech's start as the right defender was intriguing, as he took Pekarík's spot in the starting XI - it remains to be seen how Weiss will resolve this dilemma [Čech usually plays on the left, just as Zabavník]. Stoch on the left and Weiss on the right were marvellous and had it all - confidence, creativity, good passing as well as shooting - after seeing them in action on Saturday, one could expect the two to start against New Zealand from the very beginning. Hamšík and Sapara [playmakers] did a decent job and the way the latter played was a pleasant surprise - he had not played this well for Slovakia for a long time. 

The only weakness was the team's efficiency - given the number of clear cut chances they had, the final score might seem a bit disappointing - a mix 'n' match of unconverted empty netters and hit cross-bars could easily cost Slovakia some precious points in the near future. It was important that Vittek as well as Šesták scored - they had not had the most fruitful of seasons for their clubs. With eight days until Slovakia sees some real action at the Royal Bafokeng Stadium in Rustenburg the only question that remains to be answered is "what style of play will Weiss choose?". Having seen the Costa Rica game with my own eyes, I can safely conclude that the offensive one suits Slovakia well - it should definitely try to score as many as possible against the All Whites. 

Šesták's penalty

Vladimír Weiss: "I am glad that we parted with a good play, score and chances. We are  not going to the World Cup as an outsider, we are going there to play good football and to fight for a chance to advance beyond the group stages. I am saddened by Martin Škrtel's injured ankle - I hope that he will be OK. The fans were fantastic. The fact that Vittek scored a goal is a great impulse for him as well as for the entire team."

Ronald Gonzáles: "First and foremost I would like to congratulate manager Weiss and Slovakia's players for today's very good performance. They were the better side and won deservedly. The home team made more out of the game for about seventy minutes, whereas we were short of three players, especially Ruiz. My players failed to impress but I still hope that we were a worthy opponent."

Martin Škrtel: "I think that the spectators were pleased with our performance as well as the final score. We wanted to win this game in order to get into the right mood before the World Cup - and we managed to do it. The only disappointment was my injury - to stop playing after mere fifteen minutes is nothing pleasant. There might have been some minor mistakes in the way we played but we won 3:0 and that is what counts."

Ján Ďurica: "Those who came to the stadium created an excellent atmosphere - I am glad that we thanked them by playing well. The game with Cameroon was definitely more challenging, they pushed us much harder than Costa Rica. I went through numerous difficult challenges today, but that is football - I am fine and flying to Africa in full health. Kornel Saláta played brilliantly, he replaced Martin Škrtel just as we expected him to. We did not concede a goal and that says it all, although it was not only the defense that played decently today."

Stanislav Šesták: "The heat was not too comfortable, we were getting more and more tired in the second half, but the fans helped us out. I am happy about the well-deserved final score. I hope that our fans will stay positive during the entire World Cup - we promise that we will do our best."

Róbert Vittek: "I think that our first half performance was great - we showed some nice moves that must have pleased the crowd, despite the heat that made things more difficult. It is quite paradoxical that one half of Slovakia is battling with floods while over here it is sunny and warm. I had several chances in the first half but all the passes were a bit too difficult - I tried to get the ball down and did not succeed."

Miroslav Stoch


Goals: 16. Sequeira (OG), 46. Vittek, 87. Šesták (penalty)
Yellow Cards: Parks (PAR)

Slovakia: Mucha - Zabavník, Škrtel (16. Saláta), Ďurica, Čech (46. Pekarík) - Štrba (46. Kopúnek) - Weiss Jr., Hamšík (46. Sapara), Stoch (77. Jendrišek) - Šesták, Vittek (67. Hološko)

Costa Rica: Navas - Myrie (80. Gonzales), Segeras, Sequeira, Diaz - Guzman - Ureňa (46. Gamboa), Hernandez (80. Mena), Barrantes (70. Paniagua), Madrigal (70. Estrada) - Parks

Well-deserved applause.

Positive. Very Positive. The atmosphere at the Pasienky stadium was very telling - I lost the track of Mexican waves and joined in to chant one big "ďakujeme" [Slovak for "thank you"] after the final whistle. There is, however, one Slovak saying that makes me slightly wary about what is to come - "ľahko na cvičisku, ťažko na bojisku" [as with most sayings, it is rather difficult to translate, but essentially talks about things going well in the training ground but not so well in the "battleground"]. The pressure at the World Cup gets to even much better and much more experienced players that those of Slovakia. A win against New Zealand is, as I wrote before [e.g. here], a must and could be the first step towards something great and unexpected - but there is one big "if" - New Zealand will not give up without a fight, while Paraguay and especially Italy will be much tougher nuts to crack...
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