Žilina 1 Trnava 0
The opening words here belong to Pavel Hoftych. ‘I wish all Czech and Slovak football could be played in an atmosphere like this,’ said the Trnava coach. He is dead right. The game betweenSlovakia’s top two (still nobody dares to call it a title-decider) was played in front of a crowd of 8,000+, with lots of colour, impressive noise and no apparent nastiness. Credit for most of the noise must go to Trnava’s remarkable following, who filled the South Stand and were raucous throughout. That around 2,000 of their fans should travel two hours north for a 1730 kick-off on Friday (Digi Sport, you are geniuses) suggests that end-of-week productivity figures back in their hometown will be rather less than sky-high.
On the pitch, we had a contest between two sides who are both pretty good but whose strengths rather contrast, and between (in my humble opinion anyway) the Corgoň Liga’s two players of the season ; Žilina’s Viktor Pečovský and Trnava’s Miroslav Karhan. Žilina are the league’s most technically accomplished team and the one that plays the most consistently attractive football. Trnava, sharing the best defensive record with Senica and on a run of six games with no goals conceded going into the fixture, are usually the best-organised. In that sense, it was ironic that Žilina’s winning goal should result from poor defending at a set-piece. With 37 minutes gone, Miroslav Barčík swung over a corner, Momodou Ceesay leapt to flick it on and the unguarded Tomáš Majtán stooped at the far post to head it in. Otherwise, though it was never a dull game, chances were few. Both sides did come close to late goals. Jíři Koubský headed inches wide for Trnava, and they probably should have had a penalty for a high kick by Ricardo Nunez. At the other end, Róbert Pich wasted a fine opportunity to settle Žilina’s nerves by shooting straight at the ‘keeper. By the time this flurry of action arrived, Trnava were playing with 10 men following the sending-off of Martin Vyskočil for two needless bookable offences.
Pečovský and Karhan were, naturally, at the centre of much of the action. The Žilina man was once again pressed into service as a centre-back, as a result of an injury to Serge Akakpo. Trnava’s second-half substitutions, with Koubský and Ladislav Tomaček going on, were clearly designed to exploit his lack of inches. Pečovský was always going to lose most of his heading duels, but his anticipation and reading of the game, qualities unsurpassed in Slovak football, ensured that Trnava were fairly ineffective when trying to play along the ground. Karhan started in midfield, but Žilina will have been happy to see him switch to central-defence when Josef Kaufman was taken off injured early in the game. It’s not that Karhan isn’t a good defender – he’s an excellent one by the standards of this league – but he can’t dominate the contest from that position the way he can from midfield. When he pushed forward again, later in the game, Žilina were ahead and, for the most part, looking quite comfortable.
The win leaves Žilina three points clear of Trnava with five games still to play. An equal head-to-head record and a slightly better goal-difference top up their advantage. The first four of their remaining games, and all of Trnava’s, are against comfortably placed mid-table sides. But if both slip up, Slovan Bratislava could yet be allowed back into the race. So it is quite true that nothing has been decided yet. Still, it’s beginning to seem that Žilina are that bit better than either Trnava or Slovan at compensating for their shortcomings. They have also had several injury problems this season but the squad has, so far, been flexible enough to cope. As for Trnava, part of me thinks they would be deserving champions. This is partly for their support and partly for Karhan, whose return to Slovakia, aged 36 and with an excellent club and international career behind him, has provided one of the ongoing highlights of the season. But the team does just seem short of what Žilina have in abundance – attacking flair players who can change a game by doing something a little out of the ordinary. Michal Gašparík, one who is capable of this, was disappointingly peripheral on Friday.
Still, what about this for a solution? Žilina can satisfy the purists, and shut up the doom-mongers among their support, by winning the title this time round. Karhan can decide to play on for another year, and then, in 2013, fully forty years after the last time they were champions of their country (when it was Czechoslovakia), Trnava can finally win the Corgoň Liga.
By James Baxter