After Slovakia sealed qualification to their first ever international tournament as a single nation with a 1-0 win over Poland in October, it was somewhat apt that it was the Czech Republic who missed out.
Since the dissolution of Czechoslovakia in 1993, Slovakia’s former countrymen who have thrived on the international stage – reaching the final of Euro 96 – yet World Cup 2010 will see Slovakia emerge from the shadows as the frustrated Czechs watch from home.
But in a group that also included Slovenia – who qualified through the play-offs – Northern Ireland and Poland, the Slovaks’ relatively straightforward qualification certainly wasn’t expected, particularly after finishing way behind the Czechs in their disappointing Euro 2008 qualifying campaign.
Two years later, though, and boss Vladimir Weiss’ young side are really beginning to blossom. Martin Skrtel has found his feet at the heart of Liverpool’s defence, Chelsea’s Miroslav Stoch enjoyed a successful season on loan at Dutch champions Twente, while Marek Hamsik has established himself as one of the most exciting midfielders in Europe – a successful World Cup could see Napoli lose their prized asset.
Another to keep an eye on is the gaffer’s son, also named Vladimir, who Bolton and Manchester City fans will be familiar with after the winger spent half a season on loan at the Reebok from City.
Possessing the ever-exciting blend of pace and trickery, Weiss managed only 13 league appearances this season but played in Slovakia’s final four qualifying games and has sufficient confidence and self-belief to take on defences from New Zealand, Paraguay and Italy, with his father likely to grant him plenty of opportunities to do so.
Narrow wins over Poland, Czech Republic and Northern Ireland were highlights of a qualifying campaign that was efficient if unspectacular, and that’s exactly the sort of formula they’ll look to adopt in South Africa, so don’t expect too many open affairs – their last four games have been decided by just the one goal. But, unless they can overcome a strong Paraguay side, it’ll still end at the group stage for this side, yet they’ll be able to take plenty of positives from a respectable first solo attempt at a World Cup.