Slovaks reach third major finals after extra-time drama in Belfast
Slovakia twice put paid to Irish hopes in two dramatic qualifying play-offs for the Euro finals. First with a penalty shoot-out win against the Republic of Ireland in the semis, then with an extra-time victory over Northern Ireland.
Between the play-off semi-finals and the final, Czech coach Pavel Hapal was sacked and replaced by Stefan Tarkovic, Jan Kozak’s assistant at Euro 2016.
Putting in place his favoured 4-1-4-1 system, Tarkovic was two minutes from reaching the finals when an own goal took the game to extra-time. Michal Duris then hit the winner from the edge of the penalty box to fire Slovakia to their second consecutive Euros.
With a clean sheet in the play-offs, followed by another against Scotland, Fulham goalkeeper Marek Rodak has earned his starting spot in goal. Former No.1 Martin Dubravka was previously dropped from the squad after breaking curfew while on national duty in 2018.
Assuming Tarkovic stays in place as coach, his 4-1-4-1 formation uses Stanislav Lobotka as the midfield lynchpin, doing the running for the ageing but wily Marek Hamsik and Juraj Kucka, while Robert Mak and Albert Rusnak provide the width.
A veteran of the 2010 World Cup and Euro 2016, the midfielder has played over 200 Serie A games.
In the national set-up since 2013, Tarkovic was brought in before the play-off final with Northern Ireland.
With his trademark Mohawk haircut, national team captain Marek Hamsik is Slovakia’s first world star. Key to the renaissance at Napoli, where he made a record number of appearances and lies second in the club’s all-time top scorers list above the late, great Diego Maradona, the attacking midfielder had only played six times for Slovan Bratislava when he was whisked off to Brescia as a raw 17-year-old in 2004.
Now seeing out his club career with Dalian Professional in the Chinese Super League, 33-year-old Hamsik is looking to end his imperious reign in national colours on a high at this summer’s European Championship.
Visionary and talismanic, Hamsik led Slovakia to a shock 3-2 win over then-world champions Italy at the 2010 World Cup and was equally vital when helping his country qualify for the knockout rounds at Euro 2016. Seeing passes few others do, Hamsik leaves everything on the pitch, a work ethic that has pushed him way beyond the recently-retired Martin Skrtel in national team appearances – with another major tournament still to come.