Don’t expect too many new faces as the conquerors of both Irelands bank on experience to help them into the last 16 and beyond.
Neither Irish side will be present at this summer’s European Championship finals and there’s one country and one country alone to blame for that – Slovakia.
The Slovaks, then under the stewardship of Pavel Hapal, ended Republic of Ireland dreams via a dramatic penalty shootout in their playoff semi-final in Bratislava in October. A month later, and this time with Stefan Tarkovic at the helm, they saw off Northern Ireland in another agonisingly tight affair, this one being ended by Michael Duris’ 110th-minute winner.
Tarkovic, then in caretaker charge, now has a permanent grip on the reins of the
150/1 outsiders as he gears up for the country’s third major finals.
Last-16 Hat-Trick the Target
It wasn’t easy and was very rarely convincing, but Slovakia made it and now the target is obvious – at least match the feats of their two previous major finals where they got through the group stage both times.
The World Cup in South Africa in 2010 was the first major breakthrough where Marek Hamsik, still the talisman now, captained them to an unforgettable group-stage success over Italy.
Six years later at the Euros they crept into the round-of-16 with far less fanfare where they were no match for a rampant Germany, crashing 3-0.
Tarkovic had been part of the coaching staff in France and then head coach Jan Kozak had recommended him as his successor in 2018. Instead it was Hapal who got the nod though Tarkovic has only had to wait a couple of years longer to finally take charge of the national team.
His challenge in getting to the last 16 this time doesn’t look beyond him or his team. They are a remote
14/1 shot to win Group E where Spain are heavy odds-on favourites but Poland and Sweden make up the numbers and they will be daunted by neither of them.
Slovakia get their campaign up and running against Poland On June 14 and if they can secure the win at
17/5, that will perhaps give them the confidence to turn their dreams of progression into reality.
Hamsik Still the Shining Light
Just like in 2010 and again in 2016, all eyes will be on Hamsik, their 33-year-old playmaker, superstar and most capped player. Hamsik, still sporting that distinctive mohawk hairstyle, returned to Europe from China this month, joining IFK Gothenburg in the Swedish top flight.
A legend at Napoli where he set countless records and broke far more hearts when he left, his influence within the Slovak squad is almost immeasurable and Tarkovic needs Hamsik to be fit.
And Hamsik isn’t the only veteran in a set-up where the core names have been unchanged for years. Veteran right-back Peter Pekarik was a team-mate of Hamsik in 2010 while 35-year-old left-back Thomas Hubocan has retired once but just can’t seem to say no.
In between the two there is classy Inter Milan defender Milan Skriniar just behind Stanislav Lobotka, likely to be first choice in his manager’s preferred 4-1-4-1 set-up.
Hamsik and 34-year-old Juraj Kucka – who still starts in the No.10 role for Parma – will have creative duties behind a striker whose identity looks to be up for grabs. Certainly no one has cemented a place though Duris, the hero of Belfast, would probably presume he’s earned the right to wear nine in June.
*All odds correct at time of writing