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Slovakia Euro 2020 preview - prediction, fixtures, squad, star player

Ahead of this summer's European Championship, Sports Mole assesses the chances of a Slovakia side which are competing in only their third ever major tournament.

After reaching the last 16 at their first ever European Championship as an independent nation in 2016, Slovakia will be hoping to at least replicate that achievement this summer.

Despite having a population of little more than five million people, Sokoli have consistently punched above their weight over the past decade, having also reached the last 16 of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.

Slovakia's Milan Skriniar celebrates scoring their second goal with teammates on March 27, 2021© Reuters

Expectations may be relatively modest this time around, though, with the majority of their key players either already retired from international football or well into their 30s, as is the case with captain Peter Pekarik and legendary midfielder Marek Hamsik.

However, no side will relish facing Stefan Tarkovic's disciplined outfit, with their recent success at major tournaments likely to stand them in good stead when it comes to producing in the big games.

Here, Sports Mole assesses their chances of success at Euro 2020.


GROUP

As bottom seeds, Slovakia were always likely to be up against it. However, they may not have been entirely disappointed by being placed alongside Spain, Poland and Sweden in Group E.

Euros Group E

Euro 2008 and 2012 champions Spain will head into the tournament as clear favourites to top Group E, with Tarkovic's side definitely the underdogs to progress.

However, there is no reason why Slovakia cannot upset the odds, especially with three teams advancing from four of the six groups.

FIXTURES

June 14: Poland vs. Slovakia (5pm, Saint Petersburg Stadium, St. Petersburg)
June 18: Sweden vs. Slovakia (2pm, Saint Petersburg Stadium, St. Petersburg)
June 23: Spain vs. Slovakia (5pm, Stadium La Cartuja Sevilla, Seville)


HOW THEY QUALIFIED

Slovakia had to do things the hard way to qualify for Euro 2020 after missing out on automatic qualification.

Tarkovic's predecessor Pavel Hapal could only guide Sokoli to third place in Group E, with Wales pipping them to second spot by one point.

Slovakia players celebrate after reaching Euro 2020 in November 2019© Reuters

However, due to their decent showing in the 2018-19 Nations League, Slovakia received a reprieve via the Path B playoffs.

After beating Republic of Ireland on penalties in the semi-finals, Tarkovic replaced Hapal as manager and duly beat Northern Ireland 2-1 after extra time to seal a place at Euro 2020.

Hamsik, Robert Bozenik and Juraj Kucka were the stars of the show, with each of them chipping in with three goals across the arduous qualification process.


RECENT FORM

Since the European Championship qualifiers ended more than 18 months ago, Slovakia's form has largely been underwhelming, having won only two of their 13 matches in normal time.

In fairness, Sokoli did beat Republic of Ireland on penalties and Northern Ireland after extra time to reach the Euro 2020 finals, adding to their conventional wins against Scotland and Russia during that run.

Slovakia's Michal Duris in action with Austria's Philipp Lienhart on June 6, 2021© Reuters

Tarkovic's side have shown that they will be difficult to beat in recent times, though, drawing four of their last five games alongside the 2-1 win against Russia in a World Cup qualifier.

However, dropping four points against Cyprus and Malta in their other two World Cup qualifiers in March is hardly a glowing reflection of a side geared for success this summer, with two bore draws against Austria and Bulgaria in their two warm-up friendlies merely adding to that feeling.


SQUAD

Slovakia's Robert Mak celebrates scoring their second goal with teammates on March 30, 2021© Reuters

Goalkeepers: Martin Dubravka (Newcastle United), Dusan Kuciak (Lechia Gdansk), Marek Rodak (Fulham)

Defenders: David Hancko (Sparta Prague), Tomas Hubocan (Omonoia), Martin Koscelnik (Slovan Liberec), Peter Pekarik (Hertha Berlin), Lubomir Satka (Lech Poznan), Milan Skriniar (Inter Milan), Martin Valjent (Mallorca), Denis Vavro (Huesca)

Midfielders: Laszlo Benes (Augsburg), Ondrej Duda (FC Koln), Jan Gregus (Minnesota), Marek Hamsik (IFK Goteborg), Lukas Haraslin (Sassuolo), Jakub Hromada (Slavia Prague), Patrik Hrosovsky (Genk), Juraj Kucka (Parma), Stanislav Lobotka (Napoli), Tomas Suslov (Groningen), Vladimir Weiss (Slovan Bratislava)

Forwards: Robert Bozenik (Feyenoord), Michal Duris (Omonoia), Robert Mak (Ferencvaros), Ivan Schranz (FK Baumit Jablonec)


STAR PLAYER - MILAN SKRINIAR

Milan Skriniar celebrates scoring for Slovakia in March 2021© Reuters

While Hamsik remains a hugely important cog in Slovakia's midfield despite turning 34 in July, the performances of Inter Milan defender Milan Skriniar in defence may be even more important in determining Slovakia's fate at Euro 2020.

A regular for last season's Serie A champions since joining the Milan-based side in 2017, Skriniar is likely to be a very busy man given that Slovakia will almost certainly be considered underdogs in every match they play at Euro 2020.

While he is a strong, aerially dominant defender first and foremost, Skriniar is comfortable in possession, too, boasting a 90%-plus pass completion ratio in all six of his seasons playing in Serie A.

With veteran defenders Pekarik and Tomas Hubocan well into their mid-thirties now, 26-year-old Skriniar will be expected to hold Slovakia's defence together and provide that extra bit of quality to help bail them out when called upon.


MANAGER - STEFAN TARKOVIC

 Slovakia manager Stefan Tarkovic on March 30, 2021© Reuters

As mentioned, Stefan Tarkovic only took charge of Slovakia in October 2020 prior to their playoff final against Northern Ireland.

After defeating the British nation after extra time, Tarkovic's initial temporary deal was subsequently turned permanent in December, so he will be hoping to impress at Euro 2020.

The 48-year-old was a part of Jan Kozak's coaching staff between 2013 and 2018, before stepping in as caretaker boss against Sweden after Kozak was relieved of his duties, so his eight years of experience in the Slovakian set-up should serve him well during the pressure cooker of a major tournament.

Previously, Tarkovic has managed Slovakia's Under-18s, MFK Kosice, Tatran Presov and Zilina.


EUROPEAN CHAMPIONSHIP RECORD

Best finish: Last 16 (2016)

Slovakia players celebrate scoring against England at Euro 2016© Reuters

Slovakia enjoyed great success as a part of the now defunct Czechoslovakia from 1920 to 1992, winning the European Championship in 1976 as well as finishing in third place in 1960 and 1980.

However, after gaining independence in 1992, Slovakia have found football a little tougher, reaching their first major tournament at the 2010 World Cup before qualifying for the European Championship for the first time in 2016.

After losing 2-1 to Wales in their opening match, the odds were stacked against Kozak's side in terms of progressing to the knockout stage for their second successive major tournament.

However, a 2-1 win against Russia was followed up by a 0-0 draw against England, meaning they progressed to the last 16 as one of the best third-placed teams.

They may have been humbled 3-0 by world champions Germany, but ultimately reaching the last 16 was still a fine achievement given that it was Slovakia's first ever European Championship.


PREDICTION

While it is difficult to rule Slovakia out given their excellent record at the two major tournaments they have qualified for, we think an ageing squad is likely to count against them this time around.

Spain should have too much quality for all three of their opponents in Group E, while Poland possess one of the best players in world football in Robert Lewandowski.

Slovakia are capable of beating Sweden, but even if they do, Kozak's side may need another point from elsewhere in order to reach the last 16 once again. Unfortunately, we envisage them falling short.

VERDICT: 4th in Group E

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