Slovakia has failed to kick up even a dusting of World Cup magic in South Africa so far, but come Thursday afternoon at Ellis Park the Repre will need a sack full of magic, a little luck and some outside help from our South American friends to overcome the defending world champions and book the unlikeliest of tickets to the second round.
Thursdayâ€™s game is an opportunity. It is by no means a guaranteed win, and it is not a throw-away game. It is an opportunity to turn around a dismal start to this tournament and become the team that they were supposed to be. No one thought it would shake out this way, with Paraguay sitting pretty atop Group F, New Zealand becoming the darlings of the tournament, and Italy struggling just to advance. But, no matter how it happened, itâ€™s here.
Iâ€™m not going to get into too much tactical or strategic stuff, just because if Slovakia does pull off a win, it will be not through tactics or skill, but heart. When one does explore the tactics and strategy of the match up, it doesnâ€™t bode well for the Repre. Here are a few things to look for on Thursday.
-Even though Buffon is almost definitely ruled out for the match, the Azzuri welcome the return of veteran star Andrea Pirlo who is recovering fromâ€¦Pirlo will add calm, class and creativity to the offense. If the Repre are looking for a hole in Italyâ€™s defense, their best bet might be to target set plays. The Azzuri conceded goals in both of their matches so far, and that weakness could be the key hold to exploit for Slovakia.
-The must-win game presents a tricky scenario for Weiss, who needs to field an offensively-minded minded team capable of poking holes in Italyâ€™s defense, yet needs to be cautious and make sure that a strong defense is in place to weather Italyâ€™s attack. Knowing Weiss, I expect him to field a team similar to Paraguayâ€™s lineup, Defensively solid, but ready to counter attack with Sestak and Vittek up front, supported by Weiss, Hamsik, Stoch and Strba in the midfield. Itâ€™s a little bit of a toss up to see who will start at the fullback slots, but I would go with Cech and Zabavnik, if for nothing else than their emotional lift and tireless play.
-Iâ€™m beginning to sound a little like a broken record here, but Miroslav Stoch needs to start and Marek Hamsik needs to make himself a factor in this game. Weiss brought Stoch off the bench against New Zealand and Paraguay, presumably to give the team a jolt of energy, which he provided in both instances. But against a team like Italy, that jolt needs to be there from the start of the match. Stoch can pair with Vladimir Weiss Jr. to stretch the field and create opportunities for Sestak and Vittek. As with last game, Marek Hamsik needs to actually show up to the match. Heâ€™s been utterly useless the past two matches, seeming frustrated and stifled. But he can be the difference maker on Thursday, if he plays the way he knows how: smart, in the right place and the right time, creating chances for himself and his teammates.
-Skrtel, Mucha and the rest of the defense will have to pull off the performance of their lives if they hope to stifle the Azzuri attack. The thing about Italyâ€™s attack, and their entire squad really, is that even if they are playing poorly, they possess the skill and talent to strike at any minute. Thatâ€™s not to say that they have the ability to score at will, but it takes just one flash of Azzuri talent to put the game out of reach.
-Slovakia face a disadvantage in the fact that Italy have already been stunned by one underdog. Itâ€™s not common for a team like Italy to be caught off-guard two games in a row. So, it will take more than just a spirited, inspired game to best the Italians.
Honestly, there are not a lot of signs pointing to a Slovakia victory. But thatâ€™s the beauty of football, and the World Cup. Thatâ€™s how Switzerland beat Spain and New Zealand tied Italy. Thatâ€™s why millions and millions of fans around the world continue to believe in their teams, in the hope that amongst all of the losses, the frustrations, the anguish, and against all rational logic and reason, something special will happen out on that pitch.