PRAGUE (Reuters) – Slovakia are appearing in their second successive European Championship as an independent nation and will look to a clutch of veterans to lead the squad that booked a spot in the finals with shootout and extra-time wins in the playoffs.
While Slovakia left it late to qualify for the tournament, victories over Ireland and Northern Ireland in two dramatic matches showed some steel that will be needed in Group E matches against Poland (June 14), Sweden (June 18) and Spain (June 23).
Euro 2020 could also mark a last hurrah for 33-year-old captain Marek Hamsik who has scored 26 goals in 126 games for Slovakia and led the team to the last 16 five years ago before they lost to Germany in the country’s first Euro appearance.
The Slovaks failed to follow up on that success and missed out on the 2018 World Cup while only just making this year’s Euros thanks to the Nations League route through the playoffs.
Joining Hamsik in midfield are Ferencvaros’s Robert Mak and Parma’s Juraj Kucka who, aged 30 and 34 respectively, lend experience and a scoring threat to a side that changed coaches late in qualifying.
Stefan Tarkovic, an assistant during Euro 2016, took charge in October following the team’s poor showing in the Nations League and righted the ship to guide Slovakia to the Euro 2020 finals by relying on his experienced players.
After qualifying, Slovakia have not lost in their three World Cup qualification matches, including a 2-1 victory over Russia following draws against Cyprus and Malta.
Experience also runs through Slovakia’s back line with Newcastle United’s 32-year-old Martin Dubravka between the posts and Inter Milan’s Milan Skrinier, who scored in the World Cup qualifiers against Malta and Russia, in central defence.
While the Slovaks rely mainly on their midfielders for goals, 20-year-old Slovan Bratislava forward David Strelec has begun to make his mark after earning a first call-up in March.
He made his debut against Cyprus as a late substitute and then scored his first goal three days later against Malta — providing a youthful spark to complement the old guard looking to survive the group stage for the second straight Euros.
(Reporting by Michalel Kahn; Additional reporting by Robert Muller; Editing by Ken Ferris)