Slovakia have started their 2022 FIFA World Cup qualifiers on the wrong foot after a disappointing 0-0 draw at minnows Cyprus.
Ranked 34 in the world, Slovakia will host Malta in their second qualifier as they look to regroup themselves in order to avoid losing track of the top spot earlier in the campaign.
Slovakia host Malta in Stadion Antona Malatinskeho, home of Spartak Trnava with whom Sliema Wanderers player Jean Paul Farrugia played in season 2014-15.
Only one team from Group H will advance directly to the Qatari tournament with Russia and Croatia the two favourites to challenge for the top spot.
However, while Russia struggled to leave a good impression in their 3-1 win over Malta, the Croatian side fell 1-0 at the hands of Slovenia.
This highlights the unpredictability in this group and Slovakia will aim to seize on this factor if they are to qualify for their second World Cup – their only appearance being in 2010 when they dumped out Italy in the group stages.
“I think the Slovak public is quite realistic, but at the same time they hope that the national team can make it to the World Cup,” Dennik N journalist Lukas Vrablik told Times of Malta.
“While they are aware that Croatia, Russia and even Slovenia could be better than us, the supporters will still get behind the team if they are doing well while if things go south, they will immediately criticise… sometimes exaggerating as well.”
Slovak journalist Vrablik explained that the national team is going through a transition period, in particular with the introduction of youth players into the side.
“The last year it has not been great for us, even though we managed to qualify to Euro 2022 through the play-offs,” he explained.
“The team’s playing style is not really attractive and this transition process has been going on for the last two years now.”
Slovakia will face a stern test in Group E in the upcoming European Championships as they will rub their shoulders with Spain, Sweden and Poland.
Vrablik mentioned the unfortunate absences of Bundesliga-based Ondrej Duda, Laszlo Benes and Peter Pekarik due the coronavirus measures imposed by the German government as they would have injected even more quality into the team.
Vrablik also highlighted the emergence of 2002-born Tomas Suslov who is on the books of Groningen and who has earned a lot of praise by the Dutch journalists.
Slovakia are also starting to rely on centre-forward Robert Bozenik who is becoming more indispensable for his club (Feyenoord) and country.
“Bozenik introduction can be a key factor for us because we have been struggling with strikers for a long time now,” Vrablik explained.
“I still feel that we have some technical players in the squad, in particular the midfield department where there are Marek Hamsik, Juraj Kucka and Albert Rusnak.
“At the same time, there is also Milan Skriniar in our defensive line who is at Inter right now.”
Vrablik shed light on the 4-3-2-1 system with three defensive midfielders applied by the coach in the stalemate against Cyprus.
“Cyprus did not have nothing to do except sit back, dense the midfield and that meant it was over for us,” he admitted.
“That passive style could work in games against big teams but against teams like Cyprus we have to take the initiative and be more confident to get points.”
Asked about the importance of Hamsik in this team, Vrabik said that the former Napoli captain is still a valuable player to the national team.
Since Slovakia’s independence in 1993, Hamsik is considered as one the country’s greats together with Peter Dubosvky, of Real Madrid.
“We are very dependent on him, similar to Poland with Robert Lewandowski for example,” the Slovak journalist said.
“(Marek) Hamsik is just a level above all the others as he is crucial to our playing style given that he dictates the tempo of our team.
“He is a great playmaker for us and we hope that the move to Sweden will help him get 100% fit for the European championships.”