Football: Slovakia Loses 2-0 To Dutch Giants
Holland became the second Euro 2012 finalists to defeat Slovakia in the space of four days, earning a 2-0 win in Wednesday’s friendly in Rotterdam.
Stanislav Griga and Michal Hipp made six changes to the Slovak side that started Saturday’s game against Poland. Ján Mucha returned in goal, Kornel Saláta replaced Ľubomír Michalík in central-defence, Karim Guédé was given a chance in midfield, Miroslav Stoch and Michal Breznaník took over from Stanislav Šesták and Erik Jendrišek in the wide positions, and Marek Bakoš started up-front in place of Filip Hološko.
The game got off to a curious start. Within the first minute, Dutch defenders John Heitinga and Wilfred Bouma clashed heads as the latter put the ball behind for a corner. As they were receiving treatment on the touchline, Guédé rolled the ball short to Peter Pekarík, and the right-back‘s outswinging cross was headed against the bar by Marek Hamšík. Five minutes later,Holland, by now restored to eleven men, took the lead. Ibrahim Afellay’s low ball in from the left was deflected past Mucha by Saláta. It was a remarkably similar own-goal to one theRostovdefender scored at an even earlier stage of the friendly against Denmarkin Trnava 14 months ago.
The tone for most of the first-half was now set.Holland kept possession very well and, especially through Afellay and Robin Van Persie (who often drifted out to the left), caused the Slovak defence a number of problems. When the visitors did get the ball, the Dutch pressed them hard to win it back again. With Guédé and Marek Čech struggling to get passing moves started, Hamšík was frequently forced to drop deep to help them out. Still, there were occasional bright moments, generally involving Stoch’s runs down the right. On the stroke of half-time, Slovakia had a decent chance to equalise, but Bakoš, having chased a long ball out of defence, dragged his shot a foot or so wide of the left-hand post.
The first 15 minutes of the second-half were probably Slovakia’s best period of the game. Tomáš Kóňa and Roman Procházka, on for Guédé and Breznaník, both slotted in well. Kóňa was assured in possession and linked well with the attacking players, while Procházka combined effectively with Pekarík to set up some promising situations down the right. These never developed into clear-cut chances, however, and Holland gradually reasserted themselves. Rafael Van Der Vaart, another substitute, finally made the game safe for his team after 75 minutes. Again, there was an element of fortune in the goal, or at least an element of misfortune for Slovakia. Tomáš Hubočan did well to dispossess Klaas-Jan Huntelaar with a perfectly-timed challenged inside the penalty-area, only for the ball to rebound to Van Der Vaart, who finished clinically.
If only we had some clinical Slovak finishing to report on. Holland were always going to be the classier side in this match, and it was too much to hope that Slovakia would have enough of the play to create more than a few scoring opportunities. But even against lesser opponents, it’s hard to see where goals are going to come from. Bakoš certainly has a future in attack but probably needs more games (and a little patience) before he becomes a reliable finisher at this level. Stoch comes up with the occasional spectacular strike but is really more of a provider, while Hamšík hasn’t scored for his country since 2009 and the last match at Tehelné pole. A look at those who were absent from Rotterdam doesn’t offer much comfort either. Róbert Vittek is still unfit, Vladimír Weiss Junior is in the same bracket as Stoch, and Jendrišek and Šesták, both of whom were once prolific strikers, appear to have lost their predatory instincts.
Yet Griga and Hipp can rightly feel encouraged by certain aspects of their team’s play. The Poland game and this one offer certain clues to the coaches‘ thinking, perhaps the most notable of which is that three of the back four have now played 180 minutes together. The experiment of fielding Dušan Švento at left-back has been largely successful. The Salzburg man had Arjen Robben to control in Rotterdam and he did the job well, rarely allowing the Bayern Munich winger to cut in onto his favoured left foot. Hubočan, meanwhile, is beginning to look like an international centre-back and will surely be the preferred choice alongside Martin Škrtel come the autumn. The positive difference Senica’s Kóňa and Trnava’s Procházka made when they came on was also good to see, and suggested that the Corgoň Liga needn’t necessarily be written off as a source of players for the national team.
While the Dutch party make final preparations for Euro 2012, their Slovak counterparts have the beach or the sofa to look forward to. The next friendly, the last before the start of World Cup qualification, is away to Denmarkin Odenseon August 15th. A goal or two in that one would be nice, just to encourage the thought that the side will, after all, be able to break down the defences ofLithuania andLiechtenstein the following month.
By James Baxter