Slovakia lost its first game under joint-coaches Stanislav Griga and Michal Hipp on Saturday, 1-0 to Poland in the Austrian town of Klagenfurt. A Damien Perquis header after 30 minutes was the difference between the teams in what was the Euro 2012 co-hosts’ penultimate friendly ahead of the start of the tournament on June 8th.
The Slovak starting XI had a familiar look about it, though it contained only five of those who started the Turkey friendly in February. In the absence of Martin Škrtel, Ľubomír Michalík formed a central-defensive partnership with Tomáš Hubočan, Salzburg’s Dušan Švento made his international return as a left-back, the versatile Marek Čech lined up alongside Juraj Kucka in midfield, while Erik Jendrišek and Stanislav Šesták replaced Miroslav Stoch and Vladimír Weiss in the attacking wide positions. Other changes saw Dušan Perníš get 90 minutes in goal and Filip Hološko start up front.
Poland largely dominated the first-half and should really have been more than a goal up going into the interval. The dangerous Maciej Rybus went closest to doubling their lead when he hit the post just before half-time. The second period was much more encouraging for Griga and Hipp, as their side took advantage of the numerous substitutions made by the Poles. The disappointment was that they largely failed to trouble Wojciech Szczesny. Marek Bakoš (on for Hološko) and Čech did get shots on target but the Arsenal ‘keeper smothered them fairly easily. Meanwhile, the striking instincts of Jendrišek and Šesták looked to have completely deserted them. Both got into promising situations near goal, but neither managed to get a decent effort in. In fact, the only difficult save Szczesny had to make was in the first-half, when he turned aside Marek Hamšík’s low volley.
Griga said afterwards that, while no coach can ever be satisfied with a defeat, there was nothing to criticise in the players’ approach to their game and that much of their football was good. He felt that Bakoš, with his aggression, and ability to hold the ball up, made a positive difference in the second-half. But he pointed to a poor 30 minutes or so in the first-half and the four or five missed scoring opportunities as the reasons for the defeat. One would hope that, as a former international striker himself, Griga might be able to help improve the team’s finishing. Bearing in mind that record of seven goals in ten Euro 2012 qualifying matches, we’ve long been aware of how much it needs improving.
There were some decent individual performances. Michalík, after a difficult period in the first-half, ultimately settled in well. He and Hubočan gave the Polish forwards nothing at all in the second period. Švento’s pace was an asset up and down the left, though the Poles did sometimes find space down his flank in the opening 45 minutes. He might also look again at whether he could have cut out the cross, from Lukasz Piszczek, which led to Perquis’ goal.
Slovakia’s best player, however, was probably Hamšík, who, besides coming closest to scoring, impressed throughout with his running and passing. If he could just learn to get a free-kick past the first defender, he would be free of my criticisms for ever.
Slovakia now head to Rotterdam to face Holland, the team who knocked them out of the 2010 World Cup. The Dutch will be keen to make amends for a surprise defeat to Bulgaria on Saturday and are sure to make life difficult. Still, it’s the kind of test Griga and Hipp will no doubt welcome at this stage of their tenure, especially when the actual result is not of life-changing importance.
By James Baxter