By Gabriele Marcotti, SI.com
Just 22 years old, attacking midfielder Marek Hamsik is the most high-profile of Slovakia's cast of young, organized characters.
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Tall, rangy and blessed with a lethal long-range shot, Marek Hamsik may be the best player Slovakia has produced since it split from the Czech Republic. This sometimes spiky-haired wunderkind plays with enthusiasm and confidence (some say too much confidence) and is the prototypical goal-scoring attacking midfielder who bursts forward and looks to shoot first and ask questions later.
Martin Skrtel is a big, shaven-headed central defender who is supposed to be the enforcer at the back, though his critics sometimes say he's not as tough as he looks. Yet he's strong and quick and is developing into the kind of player who can lead a back four.
Robert Vittek enjoyed a breakout season four years ago, as he scored 16 goals, guiding newly promoted FC Nürnberg all the way to eighth in the Bundesliga. The goals have dried since then and he has struggled to regain his mojo: He moved to Lille and France, where he was disappointing and has now been loaned to Ankaragucu in Turkey. Despite his struggles at the club level, has been very consistent for Slovakia and, as captain, is an essential part of Vladimir Weiss' crew.
On the wing, tiny Miroslav Stoch (he's generously listed as 5-foot-6) has defied the odds time and again. At 20, he's still developing, which is why his club, Chelsea, has loaned him to FC Twente, currently battling PSV for the Dutch title. Stoch has been a hit in the Netherlands, scoring goals and providing plenty of service.
What to watch for
Hamsik (and possibly Skrtel) aside, Slovakia is short on star quality and long on teamwork. Weiss has instilled a little-engine-that-could type of self-belief, which is something you can do when you have a core of youngsters. Apart from fullbacks Marek Cech and Radoslav Zabavnik, the oldest player in midfield or defense is Skrtel, who is 25. The good news is that you feel these players would run through a wall for Weiss (and, indeed, Slovakia was well-drilled and consistent during qualifying). The bad news is that experience is short on the ground.
Up front, Vittek and Stanislav Sestak (or Martin Jakubko) do have experience, but the issue here is quality -- can they score goals at this level? They'll need to, otherwise the burden will fall squarely on Hamsik, who's exciting and gifted but, as you would expect given his young age, not a model of consistency. The same can be said for the wide men, Stoch and Vladimir Weiss Jr. (the coach's son), both of whom are elegant and technically sound, but, unlike Hamsik, largely untested. Skrtel hasn't enjoyed a particularly good season at the back for Liverpool, which is bad news because he's the glue that holds everything together in defense. Goalkeeper Jan Mucha is solid, but not prone to performing miracles.
Key match in group stage
June 20 vs. Paraguay. The Slovaks' best path to reaching the next round is nailing the three points against New Zealand in the first game while hoping for an absent-minded (or already qualified) Italy in the third -- heck, it wouldn't be the first time the Azzurri screwed things up toward the end of qualifying. But in between, Slovakia will need at least a point and probably all three against Paraguay.
Celebrity scouting report: Miroslav Satan and Zdeno Chara*
Slovakia had always been known for offensive soccer but now it is more balanced: good defense, good coaching and goalies, too. Hamsik and Skrtl are part of the new, upcoming generation and those two are fairly well-known. There are a lot of players in the biggest European leagues, including Italy and England. These young guys are bringing this confidence and this experience to the national team. That helped us perform and win the qualifying group. It seems like there will be a much better future now than what we saw after the breakup [of Czechoslovakia]. ... Paraguay is going to be the key game for them. They played a friendly against Chile [a 2-1 loss in November], which has a similar style to Paraguay and they had a lot of trouble. Hopefully, that game will serve as a good experience and they will adjust to the South American style.
* The Boston Bruins teammates are from Jacovce and Trencin, Slovakia, respectively. As told to Richard Deitsch.