One thing the SFZ and organisers of Slovak football do seem to have got right is the timing of the winter break!
As Slovakia is gripped by the big freeze seemingly prevalent right across Europe, James Baxter is here to offer his thoughts on the season so far; one of relatively few surprises and worrying times for one of Slovakia’s most-liked football teams:
There will be no domestic football in Slovakia until February 26th at the very earliest so it seems an opportune time to review what we’ve seen in the first four-and-a-half months or so of the Corgoň Liga’s 2010-2011 season.
It is no great surprise to find reigning champions MŠK Žilina at the top of the domestic table. It wouldn’t have taken an expert either to forecast that Banská Bystrica and Spartak Trnava would be among the chasing pack. And it is sad, but hardly unexpected, that the ever-likeable Dubnica find themselves right at the bottom of the league. On the other hand, few would have predicted that Slovan Bratislava would be languishing in mid-table, 12 points behind the leaders, or that Senica would be in second place, ahead of both Bystrica and Trnava.
Žilina, and I speak as a fan of theirs, have been prosaic at times this season. They do have considerable resilience, a quality demonstrated by the fact that they are unbeaten at home despite having fallen behind in five of their nine home games. Another two matches at pod Dubňom have finished as 0-0 draws. They score more freely away from home, putting five goals past Dubnica and four each past Košice and Zlaté Moravce. In fact, defeat at Senica two weeks ago is the only major blemish on Žilina’s away record so far.
Senica and Trnava have been in or around the top four since the season started in mid-July. Both have experienced, pragmatic coaches, in Stanislava Griga and Dušan Radolský respectively, and both are solid defensively. Indeed, Trnava have the league’s best goals-against record. With a little more creativity and/or sense of adventure, either of these sides could yet get closer to Žilina next spring. Bystrica tend to be more attractive to watch. Prompted by Viktor Pečovský, an excellent passer of the ball, in midfield and with a stable of promising young strikers, they are the Slovak league’s current ‘form side’, having won their last four games.
With Slovan, it is not difficult to find reasons why they should be closer to the top of the league. Their central defensive pair, Kornel Saláta and Radek Dosoudil, have had a lot of success together, having won the title at both Petržalka (2008) and Slovan (2009). Karim Guéde is a physical, skillful presence in midfield and Filip Šebo and Juraj Halenár are both proven goalscorers on the Slovak scene. There are plenty of promising youngsters too, not least Under-21 internationals Erik Grendel and Marek Kuzma. In fact, I often think that the Slovan squad is, potentially at least, the strongest in the league.
Yet reasons why Slovan are not doing too well are not difficult to find either. Off-field instability is clearly a factor. For a start, the club has had a ridiculous six coaches since winning the league just eighteen months ago. More importantly still, Slovan do not have a ground to call their own and have been playing to ever-dwindling crowds at the ever-soulless Pasienky, right in the shadow of their traditional home, Tehelné pole. On the pitch, Saláta has been out of form for much of the autumn and Halenár does not seem to have regained sharpness following a long-term injury. There have been rumours too of a conflict between him and current coach Karel Jarolím. Also (and this is a purely subjective view), Putnocký in the Slovan goal is hardly a confidence-inspiring figure. All in all, spring will be an interesting period at the Bratislava club. If they can get it right, though, a European place is far from an impossibility.
Vion Zlaté Moravce will be delighted to be just one point behind Slovan. The newly-promoted side have suffered a little from inconsistency but have looked an assured outfit when I’ve seen them ‘in the flesh’. Their captain, midfielder Peter Kuračka, is a skillful player who leads by example and, overall, it’s difficult to see the side going on a run bad enough to pull them towards the lower reaches of the table.
DAC Dunajská Streda have had an eventful autumn. They were awful at the start of the season before pulling themselves together and embarking on a long unbeaten run that raised hopes of a challenge for a European place. Limp performances in the last two games, both of which looked winnable, have deflated those expectations somewhat and now Michal Gašparík, by many accounts the creative force behind the team’s best performances, looks to be on his way to Slovan. But if DAC can hold on to Pavol Kováč, arguably the best goalkeeper in the Corgoň Liga, they should at least remain solid in 2011.
Nitra and Ružomberok will be disappointed with their campaigns so far. In Ivan Galád and Ladislav Jurkemík, both started the season with a proven, experienced coach. Jurkemík lost his job at Ružomberok at the end of October but his successor, Goran Milojevič, has fared little better, though the side continue to play attractive football. Nitra were a little more patient with Galád, waiting until the week prior to the last game of the autumn before sending him ‚on holiday‘. His replacement, Ivan Vrabec, then inspired his charges to an unexpected 2-1 win away to Vion, raising the question of whether Galád will ever return.
Below Ružomberok, we find the Eastern Slovak duo of Košice and Prešov. Košice’s poor form since July has been a virtual repeat of what they produced in the autumn of 2009. They will be hoping that the turnaround they achieved last spring will also be replicated. Meanwhile, a 4-0 win over their neighbours last weekend will have raised spirits ahead of the break. Prešov have a major battle on their hands if they are to put space between themselves and the relegation place. An excellent performance in an unlucky defeat at Žilina in September showed that they can be a decent side, but they clearly haven’t produced that sort of form often enough.
In 12th and last place, things are looking grim for Dubnica, a club who rely on selling their best players just to stay financially afloat. Year after year they have a team full of talented young players but some of the current crop do not quite look ready for the level of football they find themselves playing. Some heavy defeats have been suffered, including successive 4-0 hammerings at Trnava and at home to Vion. A 0-0 draw in the mud at DAC last week at least suggests that Dubnica’s heart is still beating. Their aim will be to stay in touch with the sides above them through March in the hope that their passing football will produce victories when the pitches get better come April and May.
Predictions for spring are not easy at the moment, not least because several players will probably change clubs before the season starts again. However, given their six-point lead and the fact that their Champions League income should allow them to strengthen still further, it is difficult to imagine Žilina not retaining the title. And, while I would love to see Dubnica stay up, the noises coming out of that club regarding money are so pessimistic it’s impossible not to fear for them. They’ve done a lot for the game in Slovakia with their development of young talent so I really do hope they survive.
By James Baxter- BritskiBelasi