Monthly Archives: June 2016

England are experts in failure

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Roy Hodgson failed, spectacularly, and should have been removed after the World Cup. Source: soccernews.com

Hello darkness my old friend, England is back with you again. Another major tournament, another exercise in failure as the Three Lions add to the 50 years of hurt by combining it with the most humbling of defeats at the hands of Iceland.

It started early on in qualifying, where many point out that they had an easy time of it as they won every single game. They did, but people forget to add the narratives to that qualification, like when they struggled to break down Estonia for a long time away from home and that Slovenia took the lead in both of the fixtures during qualifying.

Those were then drowned out by positive friendly results against Germany and France. The former was experimenting with their squad, which seemed to be a constant with England, while the latter was recovering from a harrowing few days after the terrorist attacks in Paris just a few nights before.

Buoyed by an exciting Premier League season, fans were expectant of at least an exciting team, if not looking for winning the whole thing. Those initial hopes took a small blow when manager Roy Hodgson decided to avoid outstanding players of the season like Danny Drinkwater and Mark Noble for experienced internationals that had barely kicked a ball all season in Jack Wilshere and Jordan Henderson.

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Wilshere was a bad choice, he never looked match fit. Source: Sky Sports

Then came the friendlies, where worry began to set in. The first against Turkey was a little lucky, they started well but faded badly, but it was forgiven as it was almost a week after the season and the team were waiting on the Manchester United players to join from their FA Cup exploits.

Australia were next and were dispatched nicely, especially in the second half, but the fact that Hodgson had rotated a lot of the team and not played a full-strength side had people a little shaky. Then came the calamity against Portugal, ruined by a silly red card from Bruno Alves and what was an awful attempt to employ the 4-1-2-1-2, that seemed like the manager had maliciously butchered it to stop the calls for its usage.

Either that or he vastly misinterpreted what the formation should be doing but that would have been incompetence unbecoming of someone that coached at the highest level.

Reassurance came in the shape of the first game against Russia, where England clearly dominated the possession and looked like the only team in the game. It took a free kick to break the deadlock and in true heartbreaking fashion, the Russians stole an equaliser right at the death.

Undeterred, they faced Wales with the same kind of gusto until the first Joe Hart mistake put the neighboring nation in front. Hodgson was then praised for his attacking substitutions, rather than lamented for starting the same side that had struggled to score in the last game, and the Three Lions got away with a win after two rather fortunate goals.

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Rooney worked well at times but regressed dramatically against Iceland. Source: Daily Star

With the fire back in their bellies, surely they would simply put Slovakia to the sword? Everyone was wrong. England really struggled to break them down bar a few glimpses in the first half before barely creating a decent sniff in the second, a goalless draw that would see them finish behind Wales in the group.

A blessing in disguise, many said, as they had to take on the small nation of Iceland. England’s domination had them waiting to pummel someone and it looked like they would be the one’s for the taking, with people already drawing up plans on how to take on France.

They looked way too far ahead after England capitulated from a decent start to concede almost straight away before another dreadful error from Hart handed Iceland the lead. Devoid of ideas, disinterested in changing the pace and frankly dire in the second half, where they switched to the famous tactic of four up-front playing off centre-back Gary Cahill, England disappeared from the European Champions with what was less than a whimper.

Attack was our strong suit but nervous Hodgson did not want us using our biggest asset to our advantage. England had 20.5 shots per game, that resulted in four goals with only two coming from open play and 51% of all strikes at goal came from out of the box.

Tepid forward play brought on from just one natural winger playing and the decision to avoid using our strengths by sticking what had got them through one of the simplest qualifying campaigns in recent memory. If it worked against San Marino, it’ll work against the world.

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Rashford stood out in all of the 21 minutes he played throughout the Euros. Source: Give Me Sport

Some blamed a long, Premier League season had tired some of them out and in that second half, that looked like the case. The onus on fitness is the manager, if he saw fatigue in some of his players before the tournament, he should have catered their training to preserve and renew their fitness so they could go at full throttle come tournament time.

An article from Matt Hughes of The Times said today that players were confused in Hodgson’s ideas, with one source saying: “Hodgson is the type of man who doesn’t know whether he wants tea or coffee in the morning, and this permeated to the players.” That was clear from the lack of cohesion in his selection both in the friendlies beforehand and the competition itself, he had no idea how to get the best out of the group.

In very much the style of Manchester United this season, it took Marcus Rashford to come on for the final five minutes to add a little bit of verve and creativity. It was an embarrassment to see, he should be heralded for trying something different while others around him simply gave in the ghost.

In the end, the obituaries will come and lessons need to be learnt but at the same time, it always seems to fall on deaf ears. Until someone finally cracks these players and how they should be functioning, which shouldn’t be too difficult for a qualified professional, then we will be stuck in the mud.

This has become a habit, passed on by generations, that this kind of level is acceptable and almost unavoidable. But much like Hodgson’s useless press conference yesterday, until someone champions a way forward, we will only be greeted by the sound of silence.

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NBA teams make moves in preparation for another big free agency

As the NBA Draft came round the corner and free agency lurked on the horizon, it’s usually that time of year where teams begin to strong-arm themselves into a position. Whether that be a clear rebuild, shifting assets to have more money or adding players to look like a more enticing unit to a prospective free agent, everyone wants to show their hand.

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Teague is a super pick up for the Pacers. Source: slamonline.com

That started when the Indiana Pacers traded for Atlanta Hawks point guard Jeff Teague in a real statement move from a franchise ready to compete now. Teague is a former All-Star, an excellent scorer in the paint and should relieve some of the workload from Paul George.

Add those two to some interesting pieces like Myles Turner and the newly acquired Thaddeus Young and Indiana could be a dangerous team in the East. They pushed the Toronto Raptors to seven games and despite losing coach Frank Vogel, they are a side to keep an eye on going forward.

Atlanta are handing the keys to Dennis Schroder, who has impressed in spurts, as well as freeing up some cap space. They are desperate to resign Al Horford and Teague was seen as dispencable with the German waiting in the wings behind him.

They gained a first-round pick from the Utah Jazz, who selected Taurean Prince for them, and he at least defensively will be a replacement should Horford go. That also sets up a piece for their future, which must be the direction the Hawks will go in if they struggle to compete in the upcoming free agency.

Utah gain George Hill from this trade and it’s a tidy piece of business for them. They’ve struggled at the guard position and to get an underrated veteran that can play both the one and the two will help this team reach another level in terms of competing for a playoff spot.

Whether they will compete for some low-level free agents to push them even further on is yet to be seen but this was still a solid move. Whether it’ll be worth the 12th pick in the draft remains to be seen but they will not be disappointed with what Hill will bring to this team

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Rose to New York is a no-lose situation for the Knicks. Source: sportingnews.com

Another team that have made a big move is the New York Knicks, who traded for Derrick Rose of the Chicago Bulls. The Knicks definitely needed to get better and Rose is certainly an upgrade, even if he has lost a step since his knee injuries over the last few years.

He’s still a good driver and had a slightly better season last time out, which means he’s worth the one-year risk to see if he can become a great player in the league again. The only worry will be that he, Carmelo Anthony and Kristaps Porzingis all need to get their shots with none of them regarded as excellent assist makes.

Chicago needed this break as much as Rose did and with his deal winding down, they got as much as they could for him. Robin Lopez is a solid starter in this league, especially as they are resigned to losing both Joachim Noah and Pau Gasol, and Jose Calderon can be a stop-gap player while they find a new point guard.

It also opens up the fact that Jimmy Butler is now the star on this team but the fact they looked to deal him to the Minnesota Timberwolves on draft night should worry fans. The Bulls look just about ready for a rebuild and this could be a tricky season for them.

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If Ibaka can rediscover his form and gets more involved offensively, this could be a really good move for the Magic. Source: Sportal.co.nz

The final big deal happened on draft night itself as the Oklahoma City Thunder moved Serge Ibaka to the Orlando Magic. The team in the East get a solid-to-great player that has stagnated a little in the last few years, especially after looking like a defensive beast back in 2012-13.

He is solid from three-point range and if he can rediscover his form as a leader on a young, improving team then this is a great addition. It frees up Elfrid Payton as the starter at point guard, he’ll pull attention away from Nikola Vucevic and with new coach Vogel at the helm, the Magic are on the rise.

As for the Thunder, there is zero chance that this deal was not sanctioned without the explicit consent of Kevin Durant. A lot will be on hold while we wait to see where KD will be next season but OKC will do everything in their power to convince him to stay for at least one more year.

Victor Oladipo was a great pickup, who could even start at the two-guard and give the team another solid scoring option. He could even be a leader as a sixth-man if Dion Waiters bolts town and he should be a great third option for the team going forward.

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Three issues England need to fix for the knockout stages of EURO 2016

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Hodgson is close but he’s got no cigar so far. Source: The Guardian

England are through, by the skin of their teeth but nevertheless, they are in the knockout stages. So what did we learn from the first three games of the tournament? And what needs to be done to stand any chance of progressing through a tough draw? Here’s three points of emphasis for their upcoming games.

 

Domination needs to turn into penetration

While that might sound like an innuendo, England have struggled to turn their possession advantage into significant chances at goal.

So far in the tournament, the Three Lions have averaged more shots per game than any team with 21.3. However, only five have been on target per game and 53% of their strikes have been from outside the 18-yard box.

It’s clear from those stats alone, without adding that they have scored only three goals with one from a free-kick, that they need to work the ball into the box more often. They are settling for pot shots at goal and aren’t carving out opportunities that are testing the opposition goalkeeper.

And when they do get into the right areas, they need to be more accurate with their shots. Too many half chances in the box have gone wide or straight at the goalkeeper and against the better sides, they will need to start scoring.

 

Change the pace of passing to break teams down

A regular problem for England has been breaking teams down that are sitting deep and denying them space in the box.

In the three group games, 86% of England’s passes were short while only 5% (27 in total) of them were crosses into the box. It’s good that the team is keeping possesion well and not simply lumping the ball forward but more of a mixture will dirsupt teams.

It’s also consistently too slow, playing along the lines and not creating penatrating balls that worry defences. A quick succession of play can pull a defence out of shape if it rushes to meet the challenge but England never seemed to try and use one-touch passing to speed up their play.

If they can have moments in the game where they change up their tempo to create gaps in the defence, they’ll create more moves into dangerous areas. An opposition is at its weakest when you are in behind them and Roy Hodgson’s side simply aren’t getting into those kinds of areas consistently enough.

 

Do not fear dribbling past a player in the final third

In what seems to be an epidemic in the entire championship, Hodgson’s men seem to fear taking on players one-on-one in the final third.

It might be a strange thing to say, given that England average 19.7 successful dribbles a game, but when eight have come from both the right backs, it’s simply not good enough. Too often, players look for a pass first while out wide instead of taking on the full-back, which also shows why there have been so few crosses as well.

Especially towards the end of the Slovakia game, when they would have been tiring from holding on for so long, the wide players needed to exploit the full-backs. Late on, players should look to at least take someone on if they are in a one-on-one to simply force another player out of position to deal with the situation.

Combining that idea with the one above creates a much more fluent and dangerous attacking style. Both force defences to move out of their shape when successful as players start to find room and when they do shift, they can take advantage of the holes created.

 

Even after all that, there are positives to take. England are playing better football than in the previous few tournaments and with plenty of young talent, they have a chance to evolve together over the next few years. If they can just add the above to their repertoire to get more goals when in the ascendancy, they will be a team no one would like to face in the knockout stages of the European Championships.

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The minnows are showing Europe how to play football

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Wales are the architects of this resurgence, they have been terrific so far. Source: The Mirror

Back when it was announced that the European Championships would be expanded from 16 to 24 teams, many people denounced the decision by UEFA and claimed that it would dilute the competition. However, some of the so-called minnows of the competition have thrived under the chance given to them and are even showing some of the bigger nations how it is done.

Some of them began in qualifying, with teams being a little more adventurous in the hopes that extra spots gave them a great chance of making the finals. In fact, many of the smaller sides like Wales, Iceland, Northern Ireland and Albania would have made it even in the older format, showing that it wasn’t just that more places were offered to them, they simply exceed initial expectations.

That form has continued into the group stages, with Wales being the standard bearer for bringing the heat. They have been resolute in defence, allowing just 22 of the 45 shots on their goal from inside the box, restricting teams to taking pot-shots at distance rather than crafting a better chance that has a greater risk to their goalkeeper.

They also lead the entire competition in interceptions with 20.7 per game, which just pinpoints how they are working hard at closing the lanes between players and disrupting their opponent’s passing flow.

But they aren’t just defending, Wales also have scored more goals than anyone so far with a tally of six. While some have come from set pieces, it was clear from their stand-out performance against Russia that they can be just as dangerous when given the space to attack than they can be on the counter.

Chris Coleman has done a fantastic job in finding a formation that suits the players at his disposal, namely the 3-5-2 that has kept them solid yet dangerous when attacking. They have forward-thinking full backs that can be pulled in if needed, a solid three-man wall in the defence and add the likes of Aaron Ramsey and Gareth Bale in attacking areas and it’s difficult to see why this team is a one-man machine.

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Hungary have also been a great surprise and they’ve provided entertainment in the best game so far against Portugal. Source: stuff.co.nz

Hungary managed to finish at the top of their group thanks to a solid opening win against Austria, a game that they ended up taking by the scruff of the neck. By taking their initial onslaught, Hungary found gaps and eventually got a goal they deserved before crafting a wonderful winner with a counter attack in added time.

It was they who went for the glory against Iceland after their opponents got a suspect penalty but they could only manage a late draw. Their most impressive performance, however, may have come against Portugal in the final game when they stood toe-to-toe with Ronaldo’s boys, trading haymakers in a super 3-3 draw.

Unlike many had thought,  men were not boring and despite being a tad lucky to make the finals, that has not meant they would sit on their laurels and hope for the best. They have gone for the win, caused all the teams they’ve faced issues and would not be an easy side that Belgium can simply walk over.

Iceland have come through a group that contained the Netherlands in qualifying, beating them home and away, before being a stubborn force in the finals. They maybe got a tad lucky against Portugal, they couldn’t quite cling on against Hungary but when it mattered against Austria, they were clinical.

It was never really pretty but having 0.05% of your entire population in your squad can limit your options. Sometimes you need a little fairy dust to take you that extra mile and from a small nation with a big heart, they had the passion and desire to push past more desirable teams with smaller mindsets.

Even with that luck, they have scored more goals in the competition than Germany, France, England and Italy so far, so Iceland can’t be that poor at creating goals for themselves.

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They may have squeaked through but Northern Ireland have shown great determination despite lacking quality footballers. Source: Sky Sports

Northern Ireland should be seen as a little lucky to get through but given their tough group, it’s an enormous achievement. They allowed the fewest strikes in the box with 16 and while they rode their luck to not lose by more against both Germany and Poland, who were wasteful, they showed that they have the grit to dig out a result.

In the game they needed to win to stand any chance of making the knockout stages, they showed everyone exactly why they qualified in the first place. They were resolute but rarely under serious danger, they were a threat at set pieces and managed to seal the deal late on.

While no team has broken out with real quality yet, the tournament has been entertaining because it’s much more competitive than people thought it would be. Some might be holding out to defend but other teams aren’t rising to that challenge, forcing their opponents to come out and try something.

The fact is that these teams did not dilute the mixture, far from it, they gave it much more rounded taste that asks others to step their game up at the business end of the competition. Now that it’s do or die, the big teams could learn a thing or two from their smaller neighbours in being a well-rounded team rather than a combination of individuals.

England Analysis: Hodgson’s negative substitutes stunted solid display

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Rooney worked well in the midfield and was the impressive heartbeat of the team. Source: Daily Star

As usual in tournament football, supporting your team can be a bit of a rollercoaster ride and yet again, England did not fail in getting the heart pumping. It was a bitter pill to swallow in the end but not one England cannot come back from and while there were plenty of good moments, there are issues that need to be fixed.

Starting with the positives, England overall put in a strong performance. They controlled the game and possession, limiting Russia to scraps for long periods of the game and even though there was not enough clear cut opportunities, they did create some chances at goal.

Wayne Rooney was great in the midfield, controlling the pace of the game and creating the big diagonals that spread the Russians thin, putting them under great pressure. Both Danny Rose and Kyle Walker were excellent too, working down the flanks to support the forward play as well as earning their keep by tracking back.

Eric Dier also showed his importance to the team with the man of the match display. He stopped any attacks coming from the Russians, breaking down play and keeping possession well, with his goal being the icing on the cake.

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The system also worked for long periods, especially for the likes of Adam Lallana, who impressed in the first half. In the second period, Harry Kane became too isolated and Raheem Sterling was often running into avenues without much support, so mixing it into a 4-2-3-1 going forward might give the team a better balance.

The big problem arose after 70 minutes, when Roy Hodgson finally made some substitutions. They were a little late in the game to affect much and they were very negative, especially given England’s position in the game and that he would have not made them if the team were still searching for a goal.

Taking Rooney off seemed suspect even if he was slowing in the game and his replacement, Jack Wilshire, was like-for-like and he did his best. Bringing James Milner on for Sterling showed everything you needed to know, England wanted to sit on the one-nil lead they had and take the three points home.

It’s right that they were still unlucky to concede at the end to an opposition that had not turned up for the other 90 minutes but in football you create your own luck. With them likely to push on, bringing on any of the forwards on the bench would have kept them on the backfoot and susceptible to the counter attack.

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Milner coming on was too negative and it cost England. Source: Yahoo

What was more worrying is the fact that there wasn’t just one option to put in that role either. Jamie Vardy, Daniel Sturridge and Marcus Rashford would have pressured the aging Russian defence as they tired and pushed for an equaliser. They all could fill a role out wide too if needed, so he did not even need to switch tactics to bring them on.

That negative attitude to hold on cost England dear, with Milner ever rushing out too far that allowed the cross in to the box and the biggest lesson they should learn is that their positivity was what got them into a winning position in the first place. Hodgson needs to trust his attackers and in a key derby game against Wales, England need to make a statement of intent or face more embarrassment from a team that are just as desperate to win.

In fact, this game could be do or die for Hodgson. Win and he can hopefully see the light to set course for greater victories down the road but if he fails to, he could be heading for disaster which would mean his head would be on the chopping block.

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Four teams that could be dark horses in EURO 2016

As with every major tournament, there are always a few teams that spring a bit of surprise. From Denmark back in 1992 to Greece in 2004, you can never count out the underdogs at the European Championships and there is every chance that France could host another Hollywood story that reminds us why football can create the best dramas.

Here is a look at four contenders that are shaping up to be the dark horses of EURO 2016.

 

POLAND

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Lewandowski will be crucial to their hopes. Source: foxsports.com.au

After disappointing when joint-hosting back in 2012, Poland have finally produced a team with some clout and they could deliver some heavy blows to the European heavyweights this summer.

They have already claimed one big knockout victory during qualifying, when they beat Germany 2-0 at home and they finished just one point behind their more illustrious neighbours. Adam Nawlka’s men also scored more goals than anyone else in Europe, notching 33 in ten games and they have only been denied twice in any international since September 2014.

Unsurprisingly, it’s going forward that is the real strength within this Polish side. They have a solid pairing in the middle of midfield in powerhouse Grzegorz Krychowiak and exciting prospect Piotr Zielinski with Jakub Blaszczykowski and Kamil Grosicki giving them support out wide.

Robert Lewandowski will be their talisman, arguably the best striker in Europe is in the form of his life and with 13 goals in qualifying, better than anyone else, he will be hard to stop. With the impressive Arkadiusz Milik supporting him, the 21-year-old grabbed 21 goals for Ajax in the Eredivisie this season, they will be a scary prospect for any defence to handle.

The worry is behind those players as they struggle to fill in at left-back and who should partner Kamil Glik at centre back. Wojciech Szczesny is a solid goalkeeper but is liable to a mistake, which would cost his team dearly in the knockout rounds.

Expect the Polish to come out all-guns blazing, knowing where their strength lies and trying to out-score their opponents. If they can get rolling early, especially if they handsomely beat Northern Ireland in their opening fixture, they could bulldoze their way into contention.

 

CROATIA

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Another terrific season at Real Madrid, Modric will be the architect behind any Croatian success. Source: Sky Sports

A former underdog story last time a major football tournament was held in France, Croatia should believe that they have it within them to cause a stir again.

The Vatreni started qualifying off superbly, winning four of their first six games and drawing the other two with Italy. They were deducted a point for crowd issues against the Azzuri and Niko Kovac was replaced after an embarrassing draw against Azerbaijan, yet they still finished second in Group H.

It was their defence that really impressed, conceding just five goals throughout qualifying. It boasts a wealth of international experience, from the goalkeeper Danijel Subasic to captain Darijo Srna, they have a settled back line that have been to major tournaments before.

However, you cannot talk about Croatia without discussing their astoundingly talented midfield duo. Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic, who play their club football on either side of the El Classico divide, are beautiful footballers that can craft things on a pitch that mesmerise any defence in the world.

The problem is you still need someone to stick them away and with 11 of their 20 goals in qualifying coming in two games, there is a fear that they may struggle to score. Mario Mandzukic needs to rediscover his form, Niko Kalinic is wildly inconsistent and they cannot rely on a winger like Ivan Perisic to fire them to glory on his own.

Ante Cacic has also been a divisive appointment, especially after he decided to leave Dejan Lovren at home after a falling out and the 62-year-old has experimented with a back three in recent times. Regardless, this team has the know-how and that sprinkle of star dust that could make any opposing manager worry about what witty headlines he may face the morning after facing them.

 

AUSTRIA

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Alaba is an exceptional talent and he will be the engine room in Austria’s midfield. Source: channelnewsasia.com

The home of Mozart have finally concocted the right symphony after years of international wilderness and a new generation has the potential to hit the high notes at the European Championships.

Their record in Group G was outstanding, winning the group by eight points by winning nine of their ten games and drawing once. Some may argue it was a simple group, with Russia and Sweden their nearest rivals, but you still have to go out there and perform.

Marcel Koller has his team well drilled, he can rely on the solid Aleksandar Dragovic and Premier League champions Christian Fuchs in defence to shield a potential weakness in goal. Their midfield trio of Julian Baumgartlinger, Zlatko Junuzovic and David Alaba has a great balance to it, with the Bayern Munich man their real talismanic figure in the position he prefers to play.

It’s little wonder that they’ll rest some of their hopes on Alaba’s shoulders. A wonderfully gifted and versatile footballer, his energy combined with the ability he has with the ball at his feet will be the real heartbeat of this team, they will only go as far as he will.

Like a lot of teams in the Euro’s, Austria may only be held back by their lack of goals. Marc Janko scored seven in qualifying but is not always prolific and they managed a paltry three goals in two games against lowly Moldova.

They’ve been drawn into a relatively straight forward group and should have ambitions of even topping it ahead of favourites Portugal. If they do, they could quite easily march through and cause some other big sides considerable problems across the pitch.

 

SLOVAKIA

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Hamsik is Slovakia’s x-factor, if he can turn it on then they could go far. Source: Yahoo

Giantkillers of the highest calibre in recent years, Slovakia have proven that when they are given a real test, they can rise to the occasion and that makes them a difficult proposition for anyone over the next month.

They got off to a sensational start to qualifying, beating Spain 2-0 in their second game and remained unbeaten until they face the reigning European champions again in September 2015. A loss to Belarus dinted them a little but by then they had done enough, finishing above Ukraine in second place.

Another team built on a solid core, Slovakia boast Liverpool defender Martin Skrtel, experienced campaigner Jan Durica and former Zenit stalwart Tomas Hubocan. While they don’t boast any flying full backs like some of the bigger nations, with Hubocan operating as a make-shift right back, they are difficult to break down with so many natural defenders.

Their real strength is in the centre of the midfield, where Milan man Juraj Kucka adds a solid base that allows their star man Marek Hamsik to shine in the space behind the main striker. The Napoli playmaker was their top scorer in qualifying and after another great season in Serie A, he will be the one to drive them on in an attacking sense.

Slovakia also boast some interesting wingers in Robert Mak of PAOK and former Manchester City man Vladimir Weiss, while Miroslav Stoch of Bursaspor will provide them with stiff competition should they fail. Although saying that, this is another team lacking in the striker department as Adam Nemec of Willem II likely to lead the line with just six goals at international level.

A win in a friendly against Germany in the lead up to the finals will give them an added boost and was a subtle reminder to their rivals of what they are capable of. If they can beat Wales in their opening fixture, Jan Kozak’s side could easily get out the group and at that point, no big team will want to draw them in the knockout rounds.