Marek Hamsik

No one is really sure what to expect from Slovakia. Despite looking impressive in a recent 3-1 victory against world champions Germany in a friendly the nation are still certainly tournament underdogs.

 The Panenka looks at Slovakia’s chances, the stars of their squad and how the team might line up when they kick off their Euro 2016 campaign against Wales.

This is Slovakia’s first European Championship and only their second major tournament. A strong qualifying campaign suggests they can make an impact in France. They might be joined by some touch opponents in Group B but reaching the last 16 is certainly achievable.

From qualification it is clear that England, Wales and Russia can expect a versatile team abound with defensive ruggedness and a penchant for the counter attack.

The Slovakia set up will be relying heavily on playmaker and midfield lynchpin Marek Hamsik as well as the leadership and experience of Liverpool center back Martin Skrtel.

Jan Kozak will be the first Slovakia coach to lead his side to a European Championship. The 62-year-old is looking to replicate the country’s performance at the 2010 World Cup where they reached the last-16 after progressing from a group including Italy, Paraguay and New Zealand.

Slovakia qualified via an automatic spot after finishing second behind Spain. Kozak is hoping the relatively small expectation on his team’s shoulders will work in their advantage, especially when it comes to facing the group favorites.

“One thing with England is that it’s hard for them to play at big tournaments because everyone in England wants them to win so badly, especially after going through qualification unbeaten. For them the expectation is so big,” Kozák said.

Kozak has most frequently deployed a 4-1-4-1 formation in qualification but such is the adaptability of this squad the group of players are equally adept at fitting around a 4-2-3-1. Viewers should not be surprised to witness the team playing with three defensive midfielders at Euro 2016 either.

One player in the Slovakia set up who is used to performing on the big stage is Napoli forward Marek Hamsik. Depending on the system Hamsik has played on the wing, in a central attacking midfield role and as a false nine for his country.

It is true that the 28-year-old will be key for Slovakia. He’s skillful and creative but is not the only player who can make things happen on the pitch. The Eastern European nation are blessed with pace on the wings with Miroslav Stoch and Vladimir Weiss, with the latter completing qualification at the top of the assist chart.

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Martin Skrtel captains the Slovakia side.

Slovakia’s defense is solid. Built around Liverpool center back Martin Skrtel he is, according to Kozak, “an experienced player who has been playing regularly in a great team.” Jan Durica partners Skrtel in defense for Slovakia where between them they have over 150 caps.

When Slovakia beat Luxembourg in October to clinch their first-ever Euro spot, captain Martin Skrtel made a very special TV appearance, gatecrashing his coach’s post-match interview. “Slovakia, Slovakia,” he yelled at the camera, jumping wildly, stripped to the waist, before snatching the interviewer’s microphone to do more shouting.

The 31-year-old defender will be playing for his future after Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp deemed his services surplus to requirements.

According to his agent Karol Csonto, “Besiktas is one of those interested in Martin but we’re haven’t reached a point where I can confirm Martin is going there, or anywhere else,” he told Slovakian TV station Markiza.

“I can say that it is 90 percent certain Martin will leave Liverpool, but it is far from closed,” he added.

Defensive solidarity is important to Slovakia as goals do not come easily to this side. During qualification Kozak relied on workhorse Adam Nemec. However, he hasn’t scored at club level since November 2014 and has not played regularly since his transfer to New York City FC last January was cut short. He’s currently at Willem II in the Netherlands but has seldom played.

Still, Nemec is very important for the team with his great ability in the air, and he scored two goals last week against Georgia. Arguably the best striker in the squad is Viktoria Plzen’s Michal Duris who is one of the top strikers in Czech league. After a barren run without a goal for the national team, he has since found his touch, scoring four since November.

Defense is the first priority for Slovakia though particularly from the back line but in midfield as well. Central midfielder Juraj Kucka epitomizes the squad’s attitude through his ability make tackles to break up play. With AC Milan he has displayed some wonderfully energetic performances. In doing so he earned the praise of Rossoneri coach Sinsa Mihajlovic who said, ““Kucka is great because he is like a tank, he’s very hard to challenge and goes into every tackle,” the coach told Sky Sport Italia.

It would be unwise to underestimate Slovakia. Group B favorites England are certainly beatable and with that in mind any of the four teams can progress to the knock-out stage. Slovakia are under no pressure whatsoever to perform at Euro 2016 and that could essentially be their biggest strength.