Published 24/05/2016 at 10:37 GMT | Updated 10/06/2016 at 16:58 GMT
Slovakia could be one of the more intriguing long shots for a run to the later stages of Euro 2016. This is their first European Championship, but many will remember their progression to the last 16 at the 2010 World Cup and Jan Kozak’s team looks even better than its predecessor. They have lost just twice in the last two years, over 17 games, and look a superbly-drilled unit that packs a genuine punch on the counter. Second place in Group B would certainly not be too much to ask, although that could well land them a knock-out tie against host nation France
Who plays up front? Slovakia’s squad is hardly bursting with goals and none of the strikers named in Kozak’s preliminary squad have the greatest track record internationally. Michal Duris has had a good season with Viktoria Plzen in the Czech Republic and is favourite, although Willem II front man Adam Nemec scored three times and there could yet be a role for the 34-year-old Robert Vittek, Slovakia’s all-time leading scorer. For a dark horse, the 22-year-old Slovan Bratislava forward Adam Zrelak has interested foreign clubs and could cause a surprise or two.
Slovakia will look to counter-attack, which is how they beat the Spanish in 2014, and are set up to win the ball and get it wide quickly. There is a good sprinkling of experience beyond the likes of Hamsik and Juraj Kucka, with defenders Jan Durica and Tomas Hubocan both over 30 and plying their trade in Russia. Norbert Gyomber, the versatile 23-year-old who spent the season on loan at Roma from Catania, is another option for a variety of roles but has not played much in Serie A.
THE MANAGER: JAN KOZAK
The head coaches of the teams in Group B Slovakia's assistant coach Stefan Tarkovic, England team manager Roy Hodgson,Russia's head coach Leonid Slutski, Wales manager Chris Coleman pose for a picture after the draw
Image credit: Reuters
The experienced Kozak has turned Slovakia into impressive, fiercely committed underdogs with a sprinkling of flair. A former international with Czechoslovakia who won 55 caps and was named the former country’s player of the year in 1981, his career in coaching had taken in several spells with local side Kosice – including a Champions League group stage appearance in 1997/98 - before he took the national team position in 2013. His son, also named Jan, spent time with West Bromwich Albion during a varied playing career and went on to make 25 appearances for Slovakia.
TOP THREE PLAYERS
Slovakia's Marek Hamsik celebrates after scoring against Luxembourg
Image credit: Reuters
Marek Hamsik: The outstanding Napoli playmaker is Slovakia’s heartbeat and their one truly world class talent. He captains the Serie A club and passed the 400 appearances mark for them last season; for Slovakia, he has amassed more than 80 caps at just 28.
Martin Skrtel: It was an injury-hit, uncertain season for the centre-back – who captains Slovakia – at Liverpool but his experience remains crucial to the national team even if, at 31, he may be starting to feel the ravages of time.
Juraj Kucka: The AC Milan anchor is a tough-tackling, clever, quietly effective performer who will do plenty of the hard graft in central midfield to help Slovakia wrest control of games and allow those further ahead to shine.
SOCIAL MEDIA STAR
Vladimir Weiss is more than happy to take you through a blow-by-blow account of his tournament preparations on Twitter – even if he appears to be showing himself some rather tough love on the way to full fitness in France.
JONATHAN WILSON’S KILLER KNOWLEDGE
It looks like being a 4-2-3-1 with Hamsik at its core as the central creator, with Milan’s Juraj Kucka and Viktor Pecovsky of Zilina behind him. Weiss, once of Manchester City but now at the Qatari club Al-Gharafa, will probably play on one flank, but it’s far from clear who will operate on the other with Miroslav Stoch, Robert Mak and Michal Duris all in contention.
HOW THEY QUALIFIED
Slovakia could not have got off to a better start in Group C, winning in Ukraine and then defeating Spain 2-1 with a late Miroslav Stoch goal on a memorable night in Zilina. They kept up that momentum with four more victories and, although a three-game winless run followed that included a surprising home defeat to Belarus, Kozak’s team finished three points clear of the Ukrainians to secure a richly-deserved runners-up berth. Hamsik scored five of their seven goals, jointly topping the group’s scoring charts with Spain striker Paco Alcacer, while Nemec added three.