SLOVAKIA will need that second chance after all. Requiring only a draw at home to Slovenia this evening to confirm their place as winners of Group 3 and qualify for next year's World Cup, Vladimir Weiss's men were instead defeated by two second-half goals from a spirited visiting side, who kept their own dreams alive of a South African summer. Slovakia will now head to Poland on Wednesday, in all probability needing to win to book their place at the World Cup finals for the first time in their history.
The turning point of tonight’s game at the Tehelne Pole Stadium – the last international match the stadium will host – was a 25-yard thunderbolt from the Slovenian midfielder Valter Birsa in the 56th minute, which gave his side the lead they had seemingly set out to defend. Slovakia lacked sufficient guile going forward to unlock a well-organised Slovenian rearguard, and the visitors' injury-time clincher was no more than they deserved.
Slovakia’s frustrations were demonstrated through five yellow cards, including one waved in the direction of Vladimir Weiss Jr, the manager's son, for diving in the attempt to win a penalty in the 75th minute. Weiss had been Slovakia's most dangerous attacking force, but found the Slovenian back-line increasingly impenetrable as the match progressed.
After a remarkably open first 45 minutes, during which both sides might have scored twice, the sides went in goalless at half time, with Slovakia’s long ball approach – hoping to feed from the knock downs of Martin Jakubko – producing few clear-cut opportunities. Their best chance came from Jan Durica’s long-range effort, which was fumbled onto a post by Samir Handanovic in the Slovenian goal.
The visitors also forced two diving saves from Jan Mucha, but the game tightened notably in the second half, when Weiss Snr withdrew Jakubko, reverting instead to a flat back four after the introduction of Miroslav Karhan. It seemed like a wise policy: Slovakia had been the better side when the ball was on the ground in midfield in the first half, negating Jakubko's aerial threat.
But although Miroslav Stoch made a couple of promising breaks down the right after the interval, and Marek Hamsik showed occasional flurries of excellence in the middle, it was Slovenia who seemed to relish the more fevered midfield battle. Birsa finally found some space in the middle and strode forward to lash a strike high and across Mucha for the opening goal. It was a rare moment of world-class finishing and left fireworks scattered across the pitch and Slovakia with the prospect of chasing a game that they might have preferred simply to contain.
Weiss came closest to regaining parity with his own moment of brilliance that ended, inexplicably, with petulance. Cutting in from the left, the Manchester City winger rode close to five tackles as he encroached towards the edge of the box. But with only the finishing touch required to cap a wonderful run, he instead threw himself to the ground under scant contact and was justly booked.
The match thereafter descended into a niggling battle, with Slovenia happy to run the clock down and Slovakia over-anxious to snap at their heels. Durica, Skrtel and Zabavnik also followed Weiss into the notebook as the inevitable holes began to appear. Slovenia might have scored three times in the closing stages, with Andraz Kirm and Milivoje Radosavljevc, twice, clean through. And while last gasp defending repelled them until the 92nd minute, Pecnik was left to sweep the ball past the helpless goalkeeper in the second minute of injury time after Radosavljevc broke clear and squared it efficiently.
Slovenia celebrated at the final whistle as through they have booked their place in South Africa in place of tonight’s hosts. But although their home tie against San Marino is as close to a gimmie as international football offers, Slovakia have shown enough during this long qualifying campaign to suggest that they can beat Poland and go to the ball after all.
What’s necessary now is some regrouping and some confidence rebuilding, particularly in the precocious yet naive youngsters such as Hamsik, whose effectiveness dwindled tonight. This is not over yet: there have been a lot of sweet drinks downed in the last-chance saloon.
Slovakia - Mucha; Pekarík, Škrtel, J. Ďurica, Zabavník; Štrba (84 - Novák); Weiss, Hamšík, Stoch; Vittek (80 - Jendrišek), Jakubko (46 - Karhan)
Handanovič; Brečko, Šuler, Cesar, Jokič; Koren, Birsa (90 - Stevanovič), Radosavljevič, Kirm - Novakovič, Dedič (78 - Pečnik)