2010 World Cup profile: Slovenia
By Luis Bueno, SI.com
Captain Robert Koren is Slovenia's key playmaker in midfield.
Mark Thompson/Getty Images
Through April, SI.com will profile World Cup teams weekly. We continue with Slovenia. Click here for the full archive.
Samir Handanovic. Starter with Italian side Udinese. While his record with the Italian bottom-feeders is unimpressive -- Handanovic had allowed 49 goals in Udinese's first 31 league games this season -- the Slovenian No. 1 earns rave reviews for his ability.
Bostjan Cesar. The 6-foot-3 Cesar is the rock of Slovenia's defense. Cesar appeared in 10 qualifying matches and helped Slovenia to the best defensive record during the group phase. Slovenia allowed a paltry four goals in 10 group stage qualifiers.
Robert Koren. A talented playmaker, Koren captained Slovenia through qualifying. A member of English Championship side West Bromwich Albion, Koren played in all but one of Slovenia's qualifiers. What he lacks in grit and aggression, Koren makes up for with his keen vision and can finish if necessary.
Zlatko Dedic. Scored one of the most important goals in Slovenia's short footballing history. Dedic's goal in the second leg against Russia was enough for Slovenia to knock out the favored Russians in the teams' playoff series. With VfL Bochum, Dedic has scored four goals and has started 11 of the first 22 games he played in this season.
Milivoje Novakovic. Slovenia's star striker plays his club soccer for Koln in the Bundesliga. The 6-4 striker scored five goals in qualifying, including both goals in a vital 2-1 win over Slovakia, and has notched 14 international goals in 37 appearances.
What to watch for
Slovenia is one of the biggest surprises to reach the World Cup. With World Cup 2006 sides Poland and Czech Republic as well as Slovakia in its qualifying group, Slovenia had a tough draw. A draw against Poland and a win over Slovakia proved to be a good starting point for Slovenia, who survived losses at Czech Republic and Northern Ireland to finish in second place in its group. Defense was Slovenia's strength as its back line yielded just four goals throughout the group stage. Only the Netherlands, who allowed two goals in eight games, surrendered fewer goals in all of UEFA.
Still, Slovenia was not expected to get past Russia in one of UEFA's four playoff series. The first leg went to the Russians, who downed Slovenia 2-1 in Moscow. But Slovenia hung in there and toppled the Guus Hiddink-led Russians, beating them by 1-0 in Maribor. Slovenia's goal in Moscow ensured its passage.
A relatively young nation, Slovenia was part of Yugoslavia until 1991, when the federation split off and formed its own independent state. In 1992, the Slovenian national football team was born, as Slovenia lost to Croatia 1-0. Slovenia has top-tier experience before having played in Euro 2000 and the 2002 World Cup. Slovenia did not survive either group stage, however, but managed a pair of draws in Euro 2000, including a 3-3 draw against Yugoslavia.
Still, Slovenia could pose a problem for its opponents and should not be seen as lightweights in an otherwise light group. After all, the Russians were likely counting their blessings when drawn against Slovenia and will now watch the World Cup from home.
Key match in group stage
June 18 vs. U.S. With England favored to win the group, both Slovenia and the U.S. will fancy their chances to qualify second in the group. The outcome of the game in Johannesburg will have a critical bearing on Slovenia's chances of reaching the knockout stage.
Celebrity scouting report: Sasha Vujacic*
They realize they have to depend on their defense. They don't have star names or play fancy soccer, but they play the right way. And sometimes defensive soccer pays off -- look at Greece at Euro 2004. ... Novakovic is very impressive. I think they're going to have a number of players stand out, though. Kek has done a great job to develop the young talent. ... Everybody was surprised when we beat Russia [in the playoff]. You believe in your team to a certain point, but Russia had a great team as well. It was one of the greatest upsets. ... I think the U.S. may underestimate them a little bit. They play great as a team. It'll be very interesting. England's the favorite in the group, but Slovenia and the U.S. will battle for it.
*The Los Angeles Lakers guard is from Maribor, Slovenia. As told to Nicki Jhabvala.