Opposition Analysis – Slovakia
While the nation has been celebrating our Playoff Semi Final success, Steve Clarke’s men have been knuckling down in preparation our next Nations League fixture. Our opponents are Slovakia, the only side we have yet to face in the group.
We go into this fixture top of our group on 4pts with Slovakia sitting in last place on 1pt.
Form Guide and Previous Fixtures
So far, they have endured a ropey start to their campaign, losing 3-1 at the hands of a full-strength Czech squad in Slovakia before going on to draw in Israel after the Israelis snatched a last-minute goal to salvage a 1-1 draw.
Don’t let their poor start fool you, Slovakia are good side. They currently sit 36th in the FIFA Rankings and, similar to ourselves, have a Playoff Final to look forward to, after defeating the Republic of Ireland to set up a date with their Northern neighbour in Belfast.
Our last outing against this central European side was during our 2018 World Cup campaign under Gordon Strachan.
Both sides finished the campaign as equals on 18pts, with Slovakia edging ahead of us into 2nd place on goal difference. Slovakia still missed out on a playoff spot despite their high finish as they had the least points out of all 2nd place sides.
When we faced off, Slovakia gave us a bit of a hiding on their home turf, defeating us 3-0. Our fixture at home was also a tricky affair but, in the end, the boys got the job done with Ikechi Anya’s low cross forcing Martin Skrtel into an own goal.
Slovakia have seen changes in their squad since our last meeting. Manager Jan Kozak has since resigned and his replacement is former Czech internationalist Pavel Hapal. Veteran and captain Martin Skrtel has retired from international football.
Some familiar faces are still present. The likes of Robert Mak who was sent off at Hampden as well as the Slovakian all-time record goal scorer and cap holder Marek Hamšík are both included within the squad.
COVID-19 + Injuries = Absentees
Their first-choice goalkeeper Martin Dubravka has missed out due to injury, which will likely come as a relief to the Tartan Army as the Newcastle shot-stopper was Slovakia’s man of the match last time we faced off. He was responsible for numerous outstanding saves, keeping Slovakia in the game until finally being deceived by a deflection in the dying moments.
Another absentee is someone who become a very important player for Slovakia in recent years at the heart of their defense but due to a positive COVID-19 test means he will have to isolate and miss the game, and that is Inter Milan’s Milan Škriniar. This will be a great boost for Clarke’s strikers knowing they will not have to battle the highly rated 25-year-old.
He is joined by Jaroslav Mihalík who also missed due to the Coronavirus, as well as Napoli’s Stanislav Lobotka, someone who’s value to Slovakia as a big player was only further emphasised by the efforts of manager Hapal and Hamšík to try and negotiate him meeting up with the national squad.
It is at least somewhat a relief to know Scotland are not alone in their COVID-19 troubles as nations try to navigate this international break during very tricky and unprecedented times.
Looking at their squad, their players come from a variety of leagues with only two based in Slovakia, both at Slovan Bratislava. Five of those involved play their club football within Italy’s Serie A, with the rest spread throughout Europe in the likes of the Bundesliga, Eredivisie and Ekstraklasa, as well as a couple of others who play in the more far-flung regions of China and America.
As mentioned, arguably the best of the bunch is powerhouse midfielder Marek Hamšík. At 33yrs old he is the captain, and not only holds the record for appearances within the Slovakian National Team (121 caps) but also for Napoli (521 appearances) before his move to Dalian Professional in the Chinese Super League. Hamšík will be a formidable opponent and winning battles with him in the middle of the park will be key to Scotland coming out on top.
In between the sticks will likely be the only member of the squad who plays in the English Premier League, Fulham’s Marek Rodák. Rodák has been trusted to wear the gloves for their last two games and was also responsible for heroics similar to David Marshall in their Playoff Semi-Final, saving Alan Browne’s penalty in the shootout which helped them to a victory over Ireland’s boys in green.
Other notable squad members are Parma’s central midfielder Juraj Kucka and Real Salt Lake’s Albert Rusnák who have featured regularly. One would assume the centre back partnership will be Mallorca’s Valjent alongside Lazio’s Vavro who paired up to keep a clean sheet against the Irish.
Their Weakness, Our Strength?
Looking at the Slovakian squad it could certainly be said their strengths lie more throughout the middle and less so in the wide areas. This could benefit Scotland to a degree as despite the lack of wingers in our current squad due to injury, width from our fullbacks in a formation where we try to utilise the wide areas and get the likes of Robertson bombing forward could be a game plan which would be fruitful for Clarke.
Robertson’s performance against Israel was somewhat subpar, and due to the standard he plays at weekly for Liverpool there is a weight of expectation which the Tartan Army exude on him and the pressure has been mounting after recent performances from the captain.
A match such as this, against quality opposition who somewhat lack in the wider areas could provide Robertson with an opportunity to exploit weakness’ and silence any doubters amongst the Scottish ranks. Despite injuries and COVID contributing to our lack of options out wide (Tierney, Palmer, Forrest, Russell and Morgan all missing), the returning Ryan Fraser is another whose expertise out wide could prove to be a massive asset to Scotland, and after his short cameo towards the end of the 90 and throughout extra time, it was good to see him looking sharp and linking up well in the final third.
Slovakia will be eager to notch their first win of this campaign as this game marks the beginning of what will be an uphill struggle if they are to finish 1st and win promotion to League A.
Losing some of their best players due to COVID restrictions will not help their cause however and Scotland must capitalise on this. A hallmark of our campaign so far has been playing poorly but more importantly still winning while getting used to a new system Clarke wants us to play in.
It has been a year and one day since our last defeat, drawing one and winning five in the process. Confidence can be taken from previous results. If you’re playing bad and still winning, you must be doing something right… right?
If we can get comfortable within this system, tonight will hopefully see us turn the screw on a weakened Slovakia.
Match Preview - #SCOSVK
The full match preview of Scotland v Slovakia can be found here: