With a population of little over two million, the central European republic of Slovenia will be the smallest country represented at this summer’s World Cup finals. The team’s last appearance at a major finals came in Japan & Korea back in 2002 when, with a squad lacking in anything by way of star quality, Slovenia finished rock bottom of Group B having been soundly beaten by Spain, Paraguay and South Africa. For such a small country, however, simply reaching any major finals should be viewed as a massive achievement, Slovenia’s form in qualification for South Africa 2010 remarkable for a nation of such limited sporting resources.
Winning six and losing just two of their fixtures in Group 3 of the UEFA qualifying section, Slovenia impressed with strong showings against the likes of Poland, the Czech Republic and local rivals – and eventual group winners – Slovakia. However, the team’s finest hour came in the play-off against Guus Hiddink’s much-fancied Russia as Mataz Kek marshaled his team to a memorable 1-0 win at home to take the tie on away goals having lost the first leg 2-1 in Moscow.
Despite the Russian’s embarrassment, Slovenia’s win was no fluke. Since taking the helm in 2007, Kek has constructed an efficient side founded on an outstanding defence. Conceding just four goals in their 10 qualifying games, Slovenia’s defensive record was second only to that of Holland in all of Europe. With Udinese’s Samir Handanovic in goal and an exemplary centre-half pairing of Bostjan Cesar and Marko Suler, Slovenia’s 4-4-2 is built – like so many good systems are – from the back. Shielding the back four is a tenacious midfield anchored by the team’s captain, West Bromwich Albion’s Robert Koren, with Andraz Kirm and Valter Birsa providing width and penetration. In attack, Milivoje Novakovic and Zlatko Dedic – who scored five and three goals respectively in qualifying – are a dangerous, if not particularly prolific partnership.
Though Slovenia do not possess the individual qualities of their three World Cup group opponents – England, USA and Algeria – they are well-drilled and knows how to play to it’s strengths, namely a miserly and highly effective defensive unit. Kek’s side is highly unlikely to progress from Group C this summer, but by no means should it be underestimated by its more illustrious opponents.
Probable starting XI: Handanovic (Udinese); Brecko (Cologne), Cesar (Grenoble), Suler (Gent), Jokic (Chievo); Kirm (Wisla Krakow), Koren (West Bromwich Albion), Radosavljecic (Larissa), Birsa (Auxerre); Novakovic (Cologne), Dedic (Bochum)
The Road to South Africa: 2nd in UEFA Group 3 – UEFA play-off winners
World Ranking: 23rd