Saturday, June 19, 2010

"Sloveni, vidi, vici..."

FABIO Capello’s Slovenian counterpart clearly knows the way to his critics’ hearts – their beer-bellies.
Not even taking his team to a surprise spot at the top of Group C, going into Wednesday’s final games, has won Matjaz Kek universal appeal.
Yet unlike Capello’s stern telling-off of intrusive snappers last week, Kek clearly felt an urge to lighten his ‘bad cop’ routine with some ‘good cop’ hale and heartiness – all in a matter of seconds.
Turning on a compatriot hack whose sceptical question he deemed ‘a foul’, Kek declared: ‘What I want to say to Slovenian journalists is, there’s too much that wastes our energy – not related to the pitch.
‘I hope that your attitude might improve because if this is not the case, this might not have very positive repercussions.’
‘I hope you take pride in the fact how Slovenia has performed so far - and tomorrow you’re welcome to come with this and we’ll have a beer.’
Having thus rounded on critics – then offered to get a round in – he then strode off with some departing words in English, that might not please English ears, or ease English fears.
‘Good luck, Americans.’

PRESUMABLY having realised soccer is not one of America’s favourite sports, Slovenia seemed happy at times on Friday to engage the Americans instead in a wrestling match.
Coach Matjaz Kek offered complaints – or compliments – about his opponents’ ‘aggression’
But his side’s apparent happiness when grappling – overlooked by referee Koman Coulibaly when he eccentrically ruled out Hercules Gomez’s late ‘winner’ – suggests another bruising experience for England on Wednesday.
The England squad looks increasingly fractious and fractured, even before Wayne Rooney started baiting the booboys.
Yet their last Group C opponents look more united than during their last ill-omened World Cup adventure - signalled by the gestures of genuine anxiety when substitute Nejc Pecnik had to be substituted himself, having been awkwardly bundled over as Clint Dempsey clumsily trod on the ball.
An absence of obvious star players might just be a boon, too.
The current Slovenia squad may have no one with the flair and dazzle of Zlatko Zahovic – but none likely to reduce a coach to tears, as Zahovic did in 2002 after labelling Srecko Katanec ‘a p**** of a coach’ and ‘a p**** of a player’.
‘I could buy you, your house and your family,’ Zahovic spat, before being sent back to his own home from the World Cup in South Korea and Japan.
Ahead of the 2010 kick-off, Zahovic warned many Slovenian fans might feel ‘deceived’ into ‘thinking we have got one foot in the second round’ – though at they moment they at least have a toe or two.
To prevent Slovenia stamping England out of the way, Gareth Barry’s role could be crucial in Wednesday’s must-win match.
Especially so, having watched the savvy with which Slovenia exploited slack under-manning between the US defence and midfield – at least, throughout the first half, and in the closing moments of the second.
Aleksandar Radosavljevic not only played the composed and controlling, holding role expected of Gareth Barry, but released the ball cleverly enough to bring into action wingers Andraz Kirm and left-footed right-sider Valter Birsa.
The two wide men took turns shuttling forward, in a lop-sided 4-4-2 at the tip of which Milivoje Novokovic unselfishly fed Zlatan Ljubijankic, scorer of a clever, counter-attacking second goal.
The attackers’ elusiveness could test not only Barry, but also either press back or strand upfield England’s keen attacking full-backs – especially Glen Johnson, who did almost as obstructive a marking job on Aaron Lennon than any opposing Algerian.
And Birsa, not only when darting inside to score his second goal of the tournament, appeared much more comfortable and dangerous than either Lennon or Shaun Wright-Phillips have looked during stints on the left so far.
In defence, at least, the Slovenians did look vulnerable – their zonal approach a mess at set-pieces and both centre-backs Marco Suler and Bostjan Cesar susceptible to slips and being outrun on the turn.
Kek did suggest his team might feel the after-effects of Friday’s gruelling duel in Johannesburg’s Ellis Park stadium.
‘What is my priority is to have my squad recover,’ he said.
‘They have wasted a lot of energy. The Americans have a very physical squad.
‘Yes, we have squandered a lot of energy. We need to recover, then think about England.
‘It’s very clear what we’re up against.’
Making the most of any sluggishness, though, should mean England doing more – and more intelligently – to pass around or above the defence, rather than rely on Heskey, Rooney or Gerrard to continue attempting to just barrel on through.
The US did manage to see out the game with perhaps the shortest centre-back of this or any World Cup – 5’6” Steve Cherundolo filling in, on the right of a makeshift back-three, albeit for less than ten minutes.
And for all the obvious failings of this England side – and the annoyance of defensive injuries and suspensions – they have only conceded one goal, and we all know just how that happened.
Stronger teams should provide a more searching test in England’s final defensive third, though Algeria’s Karim Ziani did manage to find space for shots from just outside the box.
The must-win match against Slovenia, though, should surely be won more in midfield, just so long as it’s England setting the pace instead of their opponents – and showing more precision and guile, in, around and into the area, instead of offering little more than witless hit-and-hopes from distance.

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