By James Baxter, britskibelasi
As a neutral fan, I’ve got all sorts of questions about Slovan Bratislava’s dream of playing in this season’s Champions League group stages. Would it be good for Slovan as a club? Would it be good for Slovak football? Do I want them to make it? The answers to all these are, at best, ambivalent.
As for the first question, I’d say Slovan ought to look warily at the experiences of Slovakia’s previous group stage representatives. Košice and the former Artmedia might well now view the competition rather as an average Joe might view a supermodel who agreed to get together with him before walking out a few weeks later with her suitcases full of his money and possessions. For both clubs, the experience was good – and glamorous – while it lasted but they haven’t fully recovered from the trauma it created even now. Žilina, who made last season’s group stages, will wait for time to judge whether that campaign is ultimately going to contribute to their long term happiness and prosperity.
For the Slovak game as a whole, group stage participation for Slovan would mean that its profile, already raised by the national team’s achievements in the 2010 World Cup and Žilina’s efforts last season, would be further enhanced. The stadium issue, however, would be a cause of deep embarrassment. The idea of Europe’s best teams playing at Pasienky is beyond laughable (though the prospect of, say, Man Utd’s fans in the away end in the rain isn’t totally without appeal) but it would also be pretty demeaning to have to stage home fixtures in Vienna or even, heaven forbid, in Trnava or Žilina.
On a personal level, I’m torn between wanting Slovan to do well for those of their fans I know personally, including (and especially) the main author of this blog, and wanting them to fall flat on their faces. It’s largely the running of the club and the source of its current wealth which gives rise to the latter wish. As for the players, the club has plenty of admirable performers who deserve the chance to show what they can do on Europe’s best stage. But then there are those seemingly throwaway quotes that emanate an air of self-satisfaction, such as Filip Šebo’s assertion ahead of last night’s first qualifying round first leg tie that facing FC Tobol was going to be ‘like any game where a stronger side is playing a weaker one. The weaker team will just defend. It will be a bit like Slovakia v Andorra’. When I read that, my first thought was ‘you arrogant git’. My second was that my sympathies were going to be with the Kazakh side.
But Slovan won’t care too much about winning neutrals like me over and why should they? For them, the most important question for now is whether they will manage this first stage of qualification and, on last night’s evidence, the answer looks like being yes. Tobol, in their yellow and green strip (another excellent reason to support them), weren’t quite as defensive as Šebo had predicted. They employed a 4-3-3 formation when attacking and attempted to mix a passing game with occasional long balls forward to Zebeljan, their tall number 18. But they rarely looked good enough to seriously question Šebo’s assertion about the relative strengths of the sides.
Slovan, though their squad is largely unchanged from last season, had a slightly unfamiliar look about them. One new signing they have made, Jiří Kladrubský, lined up in midfield, while Marián Had (in central defence) and Juraj Halenár (in a support striker role behind Šebo) were making their first appearances for several months. Kladrubský looks like an excellent addition. His defensive play was intelligent, his passing was simple and precise and he got forward to hit two wickedly swerving long-range shots in the first-half. The Tobol goalkeeper Petuchov tipped the first over the bar but could only knock the second one down to the feet of Šebo, who, as ever, was in exactly the right place and finished without fuss. Coming just three minutes before half-time, that goal eased the frustration that had begun to make itself heard in sections of the home crowd.
Tobol’s best spell of the game was at the start of the second-half when Džolčijev, their left-sided attacker, had two presentable opportunities. Zebeljan won a long high ball to set up the first and it needed a magnificent recovery tackle from Had to deny Džolčijev the chance of a one-on-one with home keper Putnocký. A few minutes later, the number 22 went clear again but was too slow to make up his mind whether to shoot or pass and ended up doing neither.
Midway through the half, Tobol defender Bogdan was left clutching his face after an aerial challenge with Halenár. The Slovan man was shown his second yellow card of the evening – perhaps partly as a result of the pre-match Zlatý Bažant, I couldn’t recall the first – and it seemed we were in for a tense final quarter. But, as often happens, the team with the numerical advantage didn’t seem to know what to do with it, while their opponents appeared to grow in determination and belief. It was no real surprise when, after 83 minutes, Karim Guédé, running onto a clever pass from Igor Žofčák, lifted the ball over the advancing Petuchov to make it 2-0 to Slovan and, you would imagine, render the second leg a fairly straightforward prospect.
Not a bad night for Slovan then. They weren’t brilliant but then they didn’t need to be. The occasional looseness in their play is forgiveable on the grounds that, in contrast to their opponents, this was their first competitive game of the season and one or two players are not yet fully familiar with each other. Especially positive signs include Had’s performance and the continuing goalscoring form of Šebo. Most encouraging of all, I would say, is that Kladrubský looks like he has much to offer. If he continues to play as he did last night, he and Guédé could give Slovan (should they progress further) the mixture of strength and assurance in midfield that Žilina were short of in last season’s Champions League.
Off the field, Slovan also had a decent night. Their fans still don’t like Pasienky of course but, apart from those few moans that were audible before the opening goal, they made what they could of their surroundings and provided colourful, noisy, completely trouble-free backing. The players, no doubt fed up with Pasienky themselves, clearly appreciated it. That’s a bond that needs maintaining, especially in the event that this shabby venue finds itself playing host to some of Europe’s biggest names later this autumn.