After making their tournament debut in 2016, Slovakia enter Euro 2020 looking to build on their growth as a national team.
Since the dissolution of Czechoslovakia in 1993, Slovakia have only played in two major tournaments, qualifying for the 2010 World Cup and Euro 2016. On both occasions they reached the last 16, but they were unable to build on the qualification of 2016 at the next World Cup, missing out on Russia as the lowest-ranked runner-up.
They also failed to qualify for Euro 2020 through the traditional qualifying path but, by the grace of the Nations League and the play-offs, Slovakia are back for Euro 2020. Republic of Ireland were the first to fall in the play-off semi-finals, with Slovakia winning 4-2 on penalties after a goalless draw. Slovakia then beat Northern Ireland 2-1 in extra-time to end dreams of full United Kingdom representation at the Euros.
Now, Slovakia continue their journey to become one of the regulars at major international tournaments.
The best players Slovakia will bring to Euro 2020
Slovakia have gone through a number of goalkeepers over the years including the likes of Jan Mucha and Kamil Contofalsky, and the latest to don the gloves for a considerable amount of time is Martin Dubravka. The Newcastle United shot-stopper made his Slovakia debut in 2014 but it would take another three years before he became the undisputed number one.
The 32-year-old hasn’t played for Slovakia since 2019 due to injury but, as he has returned to be Newcastle’s number one, Dubravka is back in the national set-up too. Since his Premier League debut in February 2018, Dubravka has saved 69.19% of the shots he has faced, keeping him close to the likes of David de Gea, Lukasz Fabianski (both 70%), Kasper Schmeichel (67.84%) and Rui Patricio (67.71%) during that time frame.
For a while, Slovakia’s defence was all about Martin Skrtel but following his retirement from international football, Milan Skriniar has taken over as the star of the backline. The Inter Milan centre-back has built a reputation for himself as one of the best modern defenders in Europe. Skriniar isn’t the strongest in the air, but his tackling is quite good and he is excellent with the ball at his feet, perfect for a team like Inter Milan who look to build from the back.
With Slovakia, his fortunes haven’t been as great, as Skriniar scored an own goal in the play-off final against Northern Ireland which took the game to extra-time, but he will always provide an excellent option at the back.
He may have fallen away from the limelight slightly following his move away from Napoli in 2019 but Marek Hamsik remains a quality player and is very much the star of this Slovakian team. And where do you begin?
The 33-year-old (yes, he’s still only 33!) made his debut for Slovakia way back in 2007 as a substitute and would play a slightly deeper role as the nation often opted for five defenders, though there was the odd occasion where he’d pop up on the wing. Out wide was a position he became more accustomed to at Napoli but Hamsik remained a central player for Slovakia, moving closer to the goal.
It’s from this role that Hamsik has scored 26 goals for Slovakia, more than any other player in the nation’s brief history, three clear of Robert Vittek, a record he equalled and surpassed in a 5-1 win over Azerbaijan in Euro 2020 qualifying. Hamsik is also Slovakia’s most-capped player, representing his nation 126 times in 14 years and continues to ooze class when on the pitch, barely losing a step since leaving Napoli.
At club level, Hamsik has returned to Europe with Swedish side IFK Goteborg, though he has made just two appearances for his new team due to injury. However, when Euro 2020 comes around he can expect to be back up to speed and hopeful of guiding Slovakia out of a tough group.
Slovakia aren’t blessed with scoring strikers in their current squad, with a lot of the goals coming from the midfield, but Michal Duris appears to have the trust of the manager and is most likely to lead the line in the summer.
The 32-year-old, who will be 33 when Euro 2020 comes around, has scored seven goals in 54 games for Slovakia, but has really split his caps between starts and substitute appearances. And he did score one of the most important goals in Slovakia’s history, grabbing the winner in the play-off final over Northern Ireland to send them to Euro 2020. Now he’ll be hoping to get on the scoresheet at a major tournament, after failing to score in 2016.
The manager: Stefan Tarkovic
Stefan Tarkovic is a man who has history with the Slovakian national team, but more as a backroom presence than a leader. The 48-year-old spent five years as assistant manager in the Slovakian setup, including under Jan Kozak when they reached the knockout stages of Euro 2016.
But his experience as head coach has been a lot briefer, only coming into the main role as an interim in October 2020, replacing Pavel Hapal who was sacked for a poor showing in the Nations League. Tarkovic was then handed the permanent role until the end of 2021 for getting Slovakia through the play-off final and into Euro 2020, proving early doubters wrong. Despite respect for him as a coach, some thought Tarkovic’s appointment as manager was risky, with short spells at a handful of Slovakian clubs including MSK Zilina his only real experience of senior management.
“Every progressive trainer should be able to analyse in terms of their strengths and weaknesses,” Tarkovic said last year.
“There are many cases in the world today that even a person without a rich playing career can be successful as a coach. And the opposite is also true – a successful player does not automatically have to be a quality coach.
“I admit, my handicap is that I have not had a rich playing career. So I don’t see the situation as the coaches who have had many national team matches behind them.
“On the other hand, I am assertive enough and I often communicate with players so that I can understand them correctly. I think that I can understand the actions of players objectively, either on the field or off it.”
Although we have had just three games to analyse how Tarkovic’s Slovakia might set up, the 48-year-old appears to have already worked out the shape he desires from his team.
In two of the three matches so far, including the 2-1 win over Northern Ireland that got Slovakia to Euro 2020, Tarkovic ran with a 4-1-4-1, providing a good mixture of defensive solidity and an attacking threat.
The key trio in this formation is the central midfield one, consisting of Hamsik, Juraj Kucka and Stanislav Lobotka. Lobotka, the most-expensive Slovakian footballer in history (for his £21.5m move from Celta Vigo to Napoli in 2020), plays a deep playmaker role sitting just in front of the back four but is also defensively solid, allowing Hamsik and Kucka to move the ball up the pitch, though the latter will also contribute defensively.
Duris is expected to be the man to lead the line, flanked by Robert Mak and Albert Rusnak, with the former on 14 goals in 65 caps for Slovakia, adding to the attacking threat. Then it’s a back four with Skriniar in the middle and Dubravka in goal to try and keep Slovakia secure.
The form guide
Euro 2020 qualifying (including play-offs): WWWLDWLWLW
Despite having just five teams in their group, Slovakia were placed in one of the most difficult groups in Euro 2020 qualifying, due to the closeness in quality of those involved. Just five points separated Group E winners Croatia and fourth-placed Hungary, with Wales and Slovakia in second and third respectively (Azerbaijan finished bottom with a solitary point).
Slovakia were a bit too inconsistent to secure qualification through the group, trading wins and defeats in their opening five games – with two of their four victories coming against Hungary. In the end, a draw and defeat to Wales proved costly in immediate qualification, but Slovakia still managed to pull through in the play-offs.
Recent fixtures: WDDLWWLLWDL
The highs of Euro 2020 qualification actually came during a poor period for Slovakia, which saw them finish bottom of Nations League Group B2 and relegated to League C for 2022/23. Slovakia won just one of their six matches, beating Scotland in the penultimate game of the group, with a draw against Israel and four defeats. However, they have made an unbeaten start to World Cup qualifying, with a win and two draws in March.
Slovakia’s Euro 2020 odds
Slovakia’s reward for winning the play-offs was to be placed in a frankly horrible group (for them) alongside Spain, Poland and Sweden. Even with the potential for three teams to go through, Sky Bet are offering odds of 11/8 for Slovakia to qualify for the knockout stages and 12/1 to win Group E. And if they do manage to qualify for the knockout rounds, Slovakia are 150/1 to win Euro 2020, with only two nations having worse odds.
(Odds in this article are correct at the time of writing. 18+ only, BeGambleAware.org)