EURO 2020 appears to be the last chance for Slovakia’s core group of ageing key players to finally break their second-round duck, but they’ll have to navigate a difficult group first.
This is the Sokoli’s third major tournament since earning independence from Czechoslovakia and the first time they have qualified for back-to-back European Championships. Thus far, they have never been eliminated in the group stages in this competition or the World Cup.
Current squad members Marek Hamšik (€8.0m), Peter Pekarik (€5.0m), Vladimír Weiss (€7.0m) and Juraj Kucka (€6.0m) all played their part when Slovakia dumped Italy out of the 2010 World Cup, the same quartet joined by Robert Mak (€7.0m) and Ondrej Duda (€6.5m) when they beat Russia at Euro 2016 and drew with England to escape Group B in third-place. On both occasions, they fell at the second round.
And while that Slovakian backbone comes to EURO 2020 with plenty of successful tournament experience, the chances of them featuring together at the 2022 World Cup in Qatar are small. Hamsik, Pekarik, Kucka, Tomáš Hubočan (€4.5m) and Martin Dúbravka (€5.0m) are all aged between 32 and 35 while just four of the 20 outfield players involved in their qualification play-off final were under 26.
So it could be now or never for Slovakia this summer so, in partnership with UEFA, we continue our series of EURO 2020 articles by examining the Sokoli in detail to see if any of their other players can compete for a place in your Fantasy squads.
ROAD TO QUALIFICATION
SLOVAKIA’S EURO 2020 QUALIFICATION RECORD
|Played||Won||Drawn||Lost||Goals for||Goals against||Clean sheets|
* not including play-offs
For all Slovakia’s tournament experience and determination to make the most of their golden generation’s potential final outing, they arrive at EURO 2020 in less than inspiring form.
Winning just half of their qualification matches under Pavel Hapal, the Sokoli were forced to book their place at this summer’s finals through the play-offs after finishing third-placed in Group E behind Croatia and Wales.
While they were only one point off the Dragons’ total of 14, Slovakia struggled to cause either of Group E’s top two sides many problems during this phase of the competition. In four matches against Wales and Croatia they earned just one point, losing 4-0 to the Vatreni.
Meanwhile, Slovakia’s only two clean sheets in qualifying occurred against Hungary and Azerbaijan while 53.8% of their goals came in two meetings with the latter. Hardly an encouraging sign ahead of facing Poland, Sweden and Spain at EURO 2020.
SLOVAKIA’S MATCHES IN 2020 AND 2021
|Played||Won||Drawn||Lost||Goals for||Goals against||Clean sheets|
* including play-offs (penalty shoot-outs are considered draws)
The poor results continued beyond the round-robin section of qualifying with relegation-causing Nations League defeats to the Czech Republic and Israel occurring in the build-up to an all-important play-off semi-final against the Republic of Ireland.
Slovakia scraped through that after a 0-0 draw and a penalty shoot-out but it was not enough to keep Hapal in the job, sacked just five days after booking a place in a EURO 2020 play-off final.
In a bold move, the Slovakian football association appointed the relatively inexperienced Štefan Tarkovič, Jan Kozak’s assistant from Euro 2016, to the role of manager in time for the play-off final against Northern Ireland in November to be his first match in charge.
Their performance in that match perhaps summed up what Slovakia have become during Tarkovič’s reign; well-disciplined, physically fit and able to get important goals in tight games when they need them most. This is a team that does not score too often but are rarely turned over emphatically since their change of leadership.
Their 2-0 reverse in the Czech Republic is the only defeat of Tarkovič’s tenure although they have produced just two wins from a possible eight inside 90 minutes during that time. Those matches include World Cup qualifying draws with relative minnows Cyprus and Malta before a 2-1 home victory over Russia.
Either way, Tarkovič is well-respected in the Slovakian dressing room and brings his players to EURO 2020 knowing they can deliver when they have their backs against the wall; perhaps exactly the trait they will need if they are to take points off Poland, Sweden and Spain.
- Most starts (including play-offs): Marek Hamsik, Juraj Kucka (both 10), Stanislav Lobotka, Albert Rusnák, Milan Skriniar (all 9), Martin Dubravka, David Hancko, Robert Mak, Peter Pekarík (all 8), Denis Vavro (7)
- Most goals (including play-offs): Róbert Boženík, Marek Hamsik, Juraj Kucka (all 3)
- Most assists (including play-offs): Stanislav Lobotka (3), Ondrej Duda, Albert Rusnák (both 2)
- Goals scored (including play-offs): 15
- Goals conceded (including play-offs): 12
- Clean sheets (including play-offs): 3
THE KEY TARGETS
Very few players at EURO 2020 have achieved the same level of talismanic status for their country as Marek Hamšík (€8.0m) has for Slovakia. He arrives at this summer tournament as the Sokoli’s all-time leading appearance maker with 126 caps, while no Slovakian has scored more goals than the mohawked midfielder since independence in 1993 (26).
Hamšík has been the captain of his national team since his early twenties, wearing the armband as far back as Slovakia’s famous 2010 World Cup win over Italy as a 22-year-old.
Now 33, he has a proud record at club level too. His 2007 to 2019 spell with Napoli coincided with Gli Azzurri’s revival years, a period in which he became their all-time leading appearance maker (520), netting 100 league goals along the way, winning Serie A’s Young Footballer of the Year in 2008, making the division’s team of the year in 2010/11, 2015/16 and 2016/17 and producing more assists than any other Series A player in both 2012/13 and 2014/15.
Such is his commitment to the national team’s involvement in EURO 2020, Hamšík persuaded then Dalian Pro manager Rafael Benitez to let him leave China to train in Europe ahead of November’s play-off final against Northern Ireland. With qualification secured, he went one better, breaking his contract with Dalian Pro in March 2021 so he could return to playing at a higher club level ahead of this summer’s finals, choosing Swedish club IFK Göteberg; the first he could find with an open transfer window. That’s dedication to the cause.
“I need to have more than just a paycheque and trophies. I need to feel something in my soul.” – Marek Hamsik
“Marek is important for the team. He is an outstanding figure. There’s no need to remind us of his playing career. What I appreciate about him is his work ethic and that he is always 100% ready to help the national team and share the wealth of his experience. These are essential qualities that Marek is known for. The experience he has gained can tilt the balance in our favour in tough games. Every player that has certain qualities can help the national team. I see our players as a team and Marek is a big part of it.” – Stefan Tarkovic
After jointly topping Slovakia’s scoring charts during qualification with three goals, Hamšík is yet to find the net or assist having not featured since November 2020, hence his desire to return to Europe in time.
When involved from the beginning, which he should be, Hamšík plays a free central-midfield role in a 4-1-4-1 system where Stanislav Lobotka (€5.5m) anchor-man duties allow him and €6.0m option Kucka, who also joint-topped Slovakia’s qualifying goal-scoring charts, to roam and shoot from distance, a dynamic that could be rewarded by UEFA’s extra point on offer for long-range goals this summer. 34-year-old Kucka is another veteran of this Slovakia team who spent over a decade producing solid displays in Serie A.
Anyone who fancies Tarkovič’s men to frustrate Poland, Sweden or Spain is best off looking to experienced right-back Pekarík or centre-back Milan Škriniar (€5.0m) in the same bracket; the two most nailed-on defenders in the back-four.
The latter is the biggest Slovakian success on the European club scene since Hamšík, having spent the last six years in Serie A, two with Sampdoria and four at Inter Milan where, in 2020/21 he proved pivotal in the club’s first league title since 2010. Unsurprisingly, he is universally regarded as Slovakia’s successor to retired national legend Martin Škrtel.
“Milan quickly imposed himself at Inter despite the tough competition. He is a modern centre-back with well-balanced defensive and attacking skills. He constantly strives to improve and his hard work bears fruit. He has all it takes to become a leader of our defence. I’m happy to have such a player in the team and I hope he stays fit.” – Stefan Tarkovic
THE LONG SHOTS
Outside of those positions, it is somewhat difficult to predict how Slovakia will line-up at EURO 2020, especially since both of their two most recent managers have made inconsistent selections, with very few players playing well enough to command starting places during that time.
Just as was the case five years ago, Slovakia are short of quality options up-front and still have no natural successor to target Robert Vittek, hence the need for Hamšík and Kucka to often shoot from range. As a result, most of Slovakia’s goals in 2020 were scored by midfielders and Michal Duriš (€6.0m), their most likely starting striker in the Matchday 1 meeting with Poland, scored two goals in 22 league appearances this season in Cyprus. In Cyprus. Anyone interested in Polish defence for Matchday 1 will be encouraged by that, as well as anyone considering Spain’s defence in Matchday 3.
There is, however, some promise surrounding 21-year-old striker Robert Boženik (€7.0m), who is on the edge of breaking into Feyenoord’s first-team and has four goals in his first 15 caps. That said, he hasn’t found the net since 2019 and, as a result, is not a particularly nailed-on starter.
Meanwhile, there is very little certainty over who will start in goal for Slovakia this summer, a position where Tarkovič may well be cursing the poisoned chalice of it being his richest position in terms of depth.
Marek Rodák (€4.5m) was the hero in Slovakia’s two narrow play-off wins, his clean sheet and penalty shootout save from Alan Browne helping defeat Republic of Ireland in the semi-final before his string of saves restricted a spirited Northern Ireland side to just one goal in the final that they won 2-1.
However, his lack of game-time at Fulham this season thanks to Alphonse Areola’s largely impressive loan spell from PSG, could count against him in the national following the fairy-tale qualifying campaign.
There was some promise surrounding Dominik Greif, who has not been selected in the end, while veterans Dusian Kuciak (€4.5m) and Dubravka both appeared in March’s World Cup qualifiers and played 90 minutes each in Slovakia’s EURO 2020 warm-up matches against Bulgaria and Austria.
FanTeam Price Corner
FanTeam managers can find plenty of discount options in the Slovakian squad this summer with none of their players costing more than €4.5m.
Hamšík, Mak and Duda are all among that cohort while the uncertainty surrounding the Sokoli’s goalkeepers has created some bargain prices.
Dúbravka, Rodák and Kuciak are all worth no more than €4.0m in FanTeam.
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