In his latest squad profile veteran blogger and journalist with DCU’s College View, Niall Farrell details a talented and ambitious Slovenian squad, a team making their second finals appearance in three attempts.
“Relative unknowns” is the term normally used to refer to the Slovenian national team. In a team which relies on mostly players from the lesser lights in the English, German and Italian leagues, household names are few and far between.
Underneath this relative anonymity lies a team with a strong spine. Quality, diligence and perseverance are the attributes which define this Slovenian team.
With a population of just under two million, Slovenia are one of the smaller nations to have qualified for the 2010 World Cup.
Slovenia were the sole unseeded team to emerge from the UEFA playoff system, defeating a strong Russian team after beating the Czech Republic, Northern Ireland and Poland to second spot (behind Slovakia in first).
Off-the-pitch problems have dogged Slovenia’s preparation, as a row over tournament bonuses threatens to escalate.
Organisation is key in the Slovenian camp, with coach Matjas Kek prizing a strong work ethic in his team. Normally Slovenia play with a flat 4-4-2 formation, with strikers Dedic and Novakovic forming an effective partnership up front. Dedic will commonly drift off to just behind Novakovic, creating space for his strike partner.
The aforementioned Dedic and Novakovic, of Bochum and Koln respectively, form the fulcrum of the Slovenian threat.
West Brom’s Robert Koren is used as an attacking central midfielder, with holding midfielder Aleksandr Radosavljevic often deployed alongside Koren.
Winger Valter Birsa is highly rated in Ligue 1 with Auxerre and poses a real threat down the left flank.
The other flank is usually occupied by Wisla Krakow’s Andraz Kirm, although the right side of midfield will be contested by both Mirnes Sisic of Larissa and Dalibor Stefanovic of Vitess Arnhem.
The defensive effort is coordinated by the excellent Samir Handanovic in goal. Handanovic has cemented his place as No.1 at Udinese in recent years and marshals his defence with authority.
Handanovic’s deputy will be his cousin Jasmin, who also plays in Italy with Mantova.
Bostjan Cesar of Grenoble is the leading centre-back in the Slovene back four and is partnered by either Matej Mavric of Koblenz or Marko Suler of Gent.
Miso Brecko is regarded as one of the most underrated full backs in the Bundesliga and will start at left back. Bojan Jokic has impressed while on loan at Chievo this season and should start on the other flank.
With a solid spine and capable backup in reserve, Slovenia are confident going into a difficult group.
England are favourites to top Group C, but the feeling in Slovenia is that they could challenge the USA and Algeria for the runner-up spot.
World Cup History
Slovenia have qualified for a World Cup just once since independence, in 2002. Their trip to Japan and Korea was characterised by dissent, as star player Zlatko Zahovic famously rowed with coach Srecko Katanec.
Zahovic was sent home by Katanec after Slovenia were defeated by Spain in their fist match.
Slovenia lost narrowly to South Africa and then to Paraguay before returning home.
Slovenia failed to qualify in 2006, but the qualification for the 2010 tournament is being heralded by some as a swansong for the Slovenian “Golden Age’ of football.
Matjas Kek had a distiguished playing career, both domestically with Maribor and in Austria with GAK Linz and Spittal/Drau.
Kek began his managerial career in 2000 with Maribor. In his time with The Violets, Kek won three Slovenian league titles and one Slovenian Cup before departing in 2006.
Before taking charge of the Slovenian national team in 2007, Kek managed the national under-15 and under-16 sides.
Novakovic is the third-highest international goalscorer in Slovenian history, with fourteen goals in thirty-seven appearances.
Currently with Koln in Germany, Novakovic earned his reputation as a ruthless goalscorer in Die Geißböcke’s promotion-winning season in 2008 when he netted twenty goals.
Previously to 2008, Novakovic was with Bulgaria’s Litex Lovech and several Austrian sides.
Novakovic was captain of Koln in 2008/2009 and scored another sixteen goals in their first season back in the Budesliga.
This season, Novakovic was involved in a dispute with Koln coach Zvonimir Soldo, but still starred as they finished thirteenth in the league.
One To Watch
Regarded as the ‘next big thing’ in Slovenian football, Krhin has broke into the Inter Milan first-team this season.
Krhin is a holding midfielder whose distribution and effective use of possession has been singled out for praise by Jose Mourinho.
Krhin may not play every match for Slovenia, but his inclusion in the Slovenian squad is a signal of things to come from this young midfielder.
Goalkeepers: Samir Handanovic (Udinese), Jasmin Handanovic (Mantova), Aleksander Seliga (Sparta Rotterdam), Jan Koprivec (Maribor).
Defenders: Bojan Jokic (Chievo), Marko Suler (Ghent), Bostjan Cesar (Grenoble), Branko Ilic (Lokomotiv Moscow), Matej Mavric (Koblenz), Dejan Kelhar (Cercle Brugge), Elvedin Dzinic (Maribor), Miso Brecko (Cologne), Aleksandar Rajcevic (Koper), Suad Filekovic (Maribor).
Midfielders: Andraz Kirm (Wisla Krakow), Andrej Komac (Maccabi Tel Aviv), Rene Krhin (Internazionale), Mirnes Sisic (Giannina), Darjan Matic (Rapid Bucharest), Dare Vrsic (Koper), Dalibor Stevanovic (Vitesse Arnhem), Robert Koren (West Bromwich Albion), Aleksander Radosavljevic (Larissa), Valter Birsa (Auxerre).
Strikers: Milivoje Novakovic (Cologne), Zlatko Dedic (VfL Bochum), Zlatan Ljubijankic (Ghent), Nejc Pecnik (Nacional), Miran Burgic (AIK), Tim Matavz (Groningen).