Northern Ireland’s bid to reach a second consecutive European Championships will be settled on Thursday night in their Euro 2020 qualifying play-off final against Slovakia.
Last month’s dramatic penalty shoot-out victory over Bosnia and Herzegovina in Sarajevo earned Ian Baraclough’s side a home final against a Slovakia side who needed a shoot-out of their own to beat the Republic of Ireland.
Here, the Livesportcentre takes a closer look at Northern Ireland’s opponents.
Remarkably, reaching the play-off final was not enough for Pavel Hapal to keep his job. Within days of the win over the Republic of Ireland, a surprise 3-2 home defeat to Israel in the Nations League prompted the Slovakian Football Association to show the Czech coach the door. Stefan Tarkovic has been placed in caretaker charge, bringing with him experience of having worked at Euro 2016 as an assistant to Jan Kozak. Having been in place for just a few weeks, it remains to be seen what sort of an impact Tarkovic can have – with questions over how much he might be able to, or want to, change things up given the short time frame.
Such is Marek Hamsik’s determination to guide Slovakia to a second consecutive European Championships, the veteran playmaker has been training alone for the past month. Now contracted to Chinese Super League Club Dalian Pro, Hamsik gained permission from manager Rafael Benitez to remain in Europe in recent weeks, avoiding any threat of travel restrictions to focus purely on his preparations. The 33-year-old former Napoli man may not be quite the player he was at his peak, but his experience and guile remain key to Slovakia. Intriguingly, there is also a return for ex-Manchester City man Vladimir Weiss, back in the squad for the first time in two years. Having initially been ruled out due to the pandemic, Inter Milan’s Milan Skriniar has belatedly joined up with the squad but ex-Liverpool man Martin Skrtel is missing with a muscle injury.
Route to the final
Last month’s penalty shoot-out victory over the Republic of Ireland was notable in that, for 120 minutes, Slovakia managed not to concede. It was only their second clean sheet in the last 18 months, the other coming in a 2-0 win over Azerbaijan in November last year. That was one of their four wins in the regular qualifying campaign as they beat both Hungary and Azerbaijan home and away, with a 1-1 draw at home to Wales their only other point.
FIFA’s world rankings currently shows Slovakia four places above Northern Ireland in 37th place in the world, but there is still a sense they travel to Belfast as second-favourites. Following the semi-final win over the Republic, back-to-back defeats to Scotland and Israel did for Hapal and left the team mired in a sense of pessimism. They have picked up only one point in their Nations League campaign to date, with Scotland their next opponents on Sunday.