Imago/PA Images The Slovakia team in training (file pic).
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The view from Slovakia: 'They know Matt Doherty, Shane Long... They know that it's a strong team'

Miroslav Antol, a journalist with Daily Sport, gives the lowdown on Ireland’s upcoming opponents.

THE EXCITEMENT IN Slovakia is palpable.

The country, formed following the dissolution of Czechoslovakia in 1993, has been attempting to qualify for competitions since their first campaign ahead of Euro ’96.

In the subsequent period, they have reached just two major tournaments — the 2010 World Cup and the 2016 Euros.

Now, Pavel Hapal’s side are just two games away from emulating those historic feats, with Stephen Kenny’s Ireland standing in their way.

Miroslav Antol, a journalist with Daily Sport, is expecting a somewhat surreal atmosphere, with no supporters permitted for this crucial game.

While the country initially dealt with the Covid-19 pandemic better than most, they are in the midst of a second wave. The current situation is similar to Ireland, with the number of cases growing in recent weeks and stricter measures being enforced to cope with the crisis. Indeed, as recently as last week, there was some doubt as to whether the play-off would even be able to go ahead in Bratislava.


“What we expected would be our advantage — playing at home against Republic of Ireland — now it seems that it’s not an advantage,” Antol tells The42.

“Although one thing is that we don’t need to travel. So we can stay at home and prepare and it’s kind of easy compared to Ireland.”

Like Ireland, the Slovaks have had a disappointing start to their Nations League campaign, losing 3-1 at home against rivals Czech Republic and drawing 1-1 away to Israel.

“The Czech Republic played an almost perfect game, we played a totally bad game,” Antol says.

However, there were other factors in the initial loss. The Czech squad was dominated by the home-based players who were already a couple of weeks into their season, whereas most of Slovakia’s stars were lacking in game time, while some important players, including captain, all-time leading goalscorer and record appearance holder Marek Hamšík, were absent for that encounter.

“Now, they should be much more ready physically and mentally,” adds Antol.

Manager Hapal’s contract lasts until the end of the current campaign. And while the president of the Slovak association has given his backing to the coach, a negative result tomorrow night will undoubtedly increase the pressure already on him.

One player who could be key to a much-needed victory is Hamsik. Many Irish fans will be familiar with the former Napoli star, who played for 15 years in Italy and made over 400 appearances for the Serie A side.

These days, the attacking midfielder is 33 and on the books at Chinese Super League club Dalian Professional, who are managed by Rafa Benitez.

As brilliant as he has been, is there now a sense that Hamsik’s best days are behind him?

“If you play in Italy and Serie A, the Chinese league is definitely different,” says Antol. “But he’s still the most important player for the Slovakian team. Even off the pitch, as a captain, and from the opponents’ side, they know that Hamsik is playing, they have to be more careful in the centre of the field, and so on.

“Okay, the age and he’s playing in China, but he’s definitely the most important player.”

In addition to the previously confirmed absences of Newcastle goalkeeper Martin Dúbravka and Sparta Prague left-back Dávid Hancko among others, it was also announced today that Stanislav Lobotka would not be making the trip to Bratislava, after a couple of people at his club Napoli tested positive for the coronavirus.

Speaking before the news was confirmed, Antol outlined Lobotka’s importance to the side.

“If he’s not here, it will be a big loss if he played like he played last year. If he played like he played against Czech Republic, I don’t think he can repeat that performance, because it was not a good performance. He’s definitely one of our best players — perfect skill to cover the ball, to take the ball from the opponent and to move with the ball, and to cover the position [of players who venture forward].”

Another influential figure who also will not be involved is former Liverpool defender Martin Skrtel. The 35-year-old centre-back currently plays with İstanbul Başakşehir in Turkey. Although he retired from international football in February 2019, the veteran star considered a comeback after watching last month’s dismal defeat to the Czechs. In the end, however, it was decided that he would stay remain retired for now.

“He is still living in his head with the team, even though he’s only a fan now, watching the games in front of the TV screen. But he’s still a player at the top level — a Turkish champion. He will play in the Champions League group stages.

People in Slovakia think he still belongs in the national team. He thought about coming back, I don’t know if he will do it definitely, but he’ll think about it. He called the national team coach and the national team coach wanted him back. But there is a health problem, so he is not ready because of the injury.” 

In terms of their opposition, Antol believes some Irish players will be familiar to most Slovakian fans, given the popularity of the Premier League in the country.

“I know the players, I don’t know if the fans know who is an English, Irish or Scottish player if they watch the game only, but they know Matt Doherty, Shane Long, James McCarthy, these kind of players. 

“When it was Robbie Keane, they did know that he was on the national team of Ireland. But they know that it’s a strong team team definitely.

“It’s not like: ‘Okay, we are going to win easily.’ Nobody thinks this.”

The country itself traditionally has a bigger affinity with ice hockey than soccer, though there will still be massive interest in tomorrow night’s game.

“A lot of people in our country are fans of success,” Antol explains. “They follow the team, but they most of the time go out from the home, go to the street, when there is a big success.

We are not a team who gets every second year or every fourth year to the big tournament, so it would be only the third time and [qualifying] would be a very big success for the team.

“When we play in a big tournament, almost all the people follow the team.

“So definitely, it would be a very good feeling for everybody [if we won]. Even in these hard times, a lot of people have lost jobs because of corona and stuff. So it would be a small joy for them.”

Antol’s predicted Slovakia XI (4-2-3-1): Marek Rodák (Fulham); Peter Pekarík (Hertha Berlin), Martin Valjent (Mallorca), Norbert Gyömbér (Salernitana), Róbert Mazáň (Mladá Boleslav); Juraj Kucka (Parma), Patrik Hrošovský (Genk); Marek Hamšík (Dalian Professional), Matúš Bero (Vitesse), Albert Rusnák (Real Salt Lake); Róbert Boženík (Feyenoord).

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