The current leaders of two European World Cup qualifying groups meet in a friendly on Saturday in preparation for resuming their respective quests for points next Wednesday.
Saturday, 28 March Kick-off: 1715 BST
Wembley Stadium, NW London
Wembley Stadium, NW London
Fabio Capello's ambitious yet so far promising project to bring the achievements of the England national team more closely into line with the expectations of a demanding English media takes center-stage again when the Three Lions meet Slovakia on Saturday in a friendly and then, on Wednesday, entertain Ukraine with World Cup qualifying points at stake.
Capello has taken a fairly mature approach to friendly internationals, not being deflected or overly perturbed by results, but focusing on what he can learn about players in such matches - and crucially giving full priority to securing results in competitive games. Given that England are top of Group Six, share with Spain the distinction of having a 100 percent record after four matches, and are the top scorers in the European qualifying groups with 14 goals, the Italian coach appears to be well on top of things.
But this Saturday's friendly will be somewhat different from earlier ones because it immediately precedes a World Cup qualifier. And what's more, opponents Slovakia are not only top of their own Group (Three), but also played last month against Ukraine, whom England host on Wednesday. More pointers than usual are therefore likely to be drawn from the English performance against the Slovaks. And for their part, the team coached by Vladimir Weiss will regard a test at Wembley as meaningful preparation for their midweek qualifier against neighbor and rivals the Czech Republic in Prague.
The Don Rules, OK...
Apart from encouraging results, Capello's achievement to date as England boss has been to bring to the job, and the team, a sense of professionalism, discipline and focus conspicuously absent under too many of his predecessors. He has proved himself to be tough but fair, serious about winning, and not in the least impressed by reputations. At last, it seems that players reporting for duty with England are eager to impress the coach and determined to work.
Previously, it seemed too many thought they were attending some casual get together where they could massage their egos, bestow facile sound-bites to the media and then deliver a hit-or-miss performance secure in the knowledge that they'd be invited to do the same the next time a match rolled around. Thankfully, paying lip-service to the shirt is now a thing of the past, and ironically the players themselves seem happier to be part of a stricter environment with a winning mentality.
Capello this week underlined his no-nonsense approach by letting Wayne Rooney and Ashley Cole know that he expects them to show higher standards of self-discipline both on the pitch and off it. Hard to imagine Sven-Goran Eriksson or Steve McClaren laying down the law in that way.
Capello also emerged with credit for his considered handling of Ledley King, in sharp contrast to the schoolboy yammerings from the sidelines of King's club manager Harry Redknapp. It has taken an Italian to show England how their football team should be run; but his reign will only be judged an unqualified success if England can become a credible contender for international honors after 43 years of false dawns.
...And Weiss Makes His Own Impact
Ex-Czechoslovakia international Vladimir Weiss, who played for the former nation in the Italia 1990 World Cup, took over as Slovakia's coach last July, and is aiming to guide the country of 5.4 million inhabitants to their first major tournament - next year's World Cup in South Africa.
He has taken them to the top of their qualifying group ahead of favorites the Czech Republic and Poland, pulling off their most memorable victory yet, a 2-1 triumph against the Poles in mid-October that confirmed them as group leaders and a side to be taken seriously. Weiss is credited with transforming Slovakia's prospects, and has been helped by the emergence of a generation of exciting young players whose development at international level he has encouraged.
One of them, Bochum's attacking midfielder Stanislav Sestak, scorer of the two goals in two minutes that beat Poland, recently told FIFA.com, "We’re heading in the right direction. We have good youth players coming through, and the domestic league is getting stronger. We also have more players in the big leagues abroad. If we can establish ourselves here, the national team will qualify for a major tournament at some point, because we certainly have the potential."
He added, "I’d really like Slovakia to go to the World Cup for the first time in 2010. If it doesn’t work out, we’ll see if we can get to the next tournament. We Slovaks are stubborn folk – we don’t give up until the job’s done."
During the course of 2008, Slovakia jumped more than 100 points and 15 places in FIFA's world ranking table, to take their place in the world's top 50 at number 42. They have since slipped to 53rd after losing both games in a friendly tournament in Cyprus last month, but their progress under former Artmedia Petrzalka and FK Saturn Ramenskoye (Russia) coach Weiss is irrefutable.
Regarding the contest with England, Weis said, "It will be a tough match in London but only duels like this can move us forward. If we make a good result it would be a confidence boost ahead of the encounter in Prague."
England's ascent to the summit of Group Six has included a stunning 4-1 win in Croatia and, in their most recent qualifier, a 3-1 success in Belarus. Croatia and Ukraine are five points behind them, though unbeaten Ukraine have a match in hand and will be looking to seize the initiative in the Group on Wednesday when they take on Capello's men at Wembley. England's last game was a friendly on 11 February in Seville, when they were beaten 2-0 by European champions Spain.
Slovakia are ahead in their close-fought group, with Northern Ireland, Czech Republic, Poland and Slovenia all two points behind them. Northern Ireland have played a game more - a 3-0 win in San Marino in February - while on Saturday, Slovenia host the Czech Republic and Northern Ireland entertain Poland. Four days later Slovakia make the short journey to Prague, while Northern Ireland welcome Slovenia and Poland host San Marino. In February, Slovakia took part in a four-nation friendly tournament in Cyprus, but lost both their matches - on consecutive days - 3-2 to first Ukraine and then the Cypriots.
Few people will be unaware by now that Tottenham Hotspur defender Ledley King, called up by Capello despite a chronic knee injury that prevents him from training between matches, left the England camp on Tuesday without having trained. The FA said in a statement, "Both parties agreed the best interests of the player are served by
continuing his individual training program at the club." And a spokesman added that the England management fully understood King's injury situation but wanted "to have a close look at him".
Capello has promised to use the maximum permitted six substitutes against Slovakia in a bid to keep his players fresh for the more important match against Ukraine. The Italian coach told reporters, "The Ukraine game is very important to us. Their league only started at the beginning of March so their players will be very fresh. Ours are a little bit tired but I think the fans will help us this time. We will have 12 players on the pitch."
Everton left-back Leighton Baines was called up to the squad, and Manchester United goalkeeper Ben Foster was also drafted in - despite Capello's policy of not picking players who are not regulars in their club sides. Foster's impressive League Cup final performance as United beat Spurs on penalties earned him a place in the squad.
Spurs winger Aaron Lennon, who won the last of his nine caps against Andorra two years ago, will be in contention with Shaun Wright-Phillips and potential record-breaker David Beckham for the berth on the right of midfield. However, Wright-Phillips and Peter Crouch may be doubtful for Saturday's game having missed two days' training in midweek with ankle and calf injuries, respectively.
Capello is expected to use the Slovakia game to give some of his less experienced players a run-out before picking his first-choice XI for the qualifier against Ukraine on Wednesday. With David James turning 39 before next year's World Cup finals in South Africa, the coach may give Foster some international experience, and this game seems to be a good opportunity.
Lennon was used in the wide right role in training all week and could well start ahead of Beckham, who is one cap away from breaking Bobby Moore's 108-cap record for an England outfield player.
Emile Heskey is expected to partner "crazy man" Wayne Rooney in attack. Rooney, suitably admonished by Capello for abusing referees and corner flags, and fellow Liverpudlian Steven Gerrard are back in the squad for the first time since the qualifying win in Belarus last October, Gerrard could start on the left flank start but in a free role. Rio Ferdinand is fit after missing the defeat by Spain in February.
Goalkeepers: David James (Portsmouth), Robert Green (West Ham United), Ben Foster (Manchester United)
Defenders: Leighton Baines (Everton), Phil Jagielka (Everton), Joleon Lescott (Everton), Ashley Cole (Chelsea), John Terry (Chelsea), Rio Ferdinand (Manchester United), Glen Johnson (Portsmouth), Matthew Upson (West Ham United).
Midfielders: Gareth Barry (Aston Villa), Michael Carrick (Manchester United), Frank Lampard (Chelsea), Stewart Downing (Middlesbrough), David Beckham (AC Milan), Shaun Wright-Phillips (Manchester City), Aaron Lennon (Tottenham Hotspur), Steven Gerrard (Liverpool).
Forwards: Carlton Cole (West Ham United), Peter Crouch (Portsmouth), Emile Heskey (Aston Villa), Wayne Rooney (Manchester United).
Liverpool center-back Martin Skrtel is likely to be the pivotal figure in Slovakia's defense, with Vladimir Weiss having included both him and fellow Premier League defender Marek Cech of West Bromwich Albion in his 24-man squad, along with midfielder Marek Hamsik of Napoli and strikers Marek Mintal of Nuremberg and Robert Vittek of Lille.
Skrtel certainly got the better of Heskey last weekend when Liverpool thrashed Aston Villa 5-0 at Anfield. Hamsik has scored nine goals from midfield this season for Napoli and is likely to be head-to-head with Frank Lampard.
Goalkeepers: Stefan Senecky (Ankaraspor), Jan Mucha (Legia Warsaw), Lubos Kamenar (Artmedia Petrzalka).
Defenders: Martin Skrtel (Liverpool), Peter Pekarik (Wolfsburg), Marek Cech (West Bromwich Albion), Jan Durica (Lokomotiv Moscow), Jan Cisovsky (Timisoara), Roman Kratochvil (Konyaspor), Radoslav Zabavnik (Terek Groznyi), Martin Dobrotka (Slovan Bratislava), Jozef Valachovic (Slovan Bratislava).
Midfielders: Stanislav Sestak (Bochum), Jan Kozak (Slovan Bratislava), Branislav Obzera (Slovan Bratislava), Marek Hamsik (Napoli), Zdeno Strba (Zilina), Marek Sarapa (Rosenborg), Miroslav Karhan (Mainz 05).
Forwards: Robert Vittek (Lille), Filip Holosko (Besiktas), Marek Mintal (Nuremberg), Erik Jendrisek (Kaiserslautern), Martin Jakubko (Khimki).
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Steven Gerrard: Zinedine Zidane recently called him the world's best midfielder, and this week Gerrard's club manager Rafa Benitez backed him to be named PFA player of the year. The dynamic midfielder is in electrifying form at the moment, having scored six of Liverpool's last 13 goals spanning three matches, pushing his goals total to 21in all competitions for the Reds this season. Benitez said, "You know when he is on the pitch you have more options to win," and Capello will be keen for Gerrard to reproduce his Liverpool form in an England shirt over the next few days. That hasn't always happened, but the national team coach has come closer than most to accommodating both Gerrard and Lampard in his team, and will be looking for further evidence of that on Saturday, when Gerrard could pose problems for Slovakia in a freer, more advanced role than he has usually played for is country.
Marek Mintal: Nuremberg's 'Phantom', who joined the German club from his hometown club MSK Zilina in 2003, earned his nickname for an ability to ghost into the opposition penalty area without being tracked and finding the back of the net. He has been prolific from midfield in German club football especially, and is someone England will need to keep close tabs on. Coincidentally Mintal hails Gerrard as one of his favorite players, along with Cristiano Ronaldo. The goalscoring midfielder is seeking promotion this season with his club and World Cup qualification with his country. He recently said that while Slovakia have some very good players with good technique, they have too often in the past found it too stern a test to beat the top teams - but promised that all the players in the squad were up for the challenge of reaching a major finals and putting the country on the football map.
This should be a useful work-out for both coaches and their teams, but England, seeking a morale-boosting win to maintain their momentum for Wednesday's clash against Ukraine, should be strong enough, with the backing of the Wembley crowd, to secure the victory. If they score early they could go on to win comfortably; but if Slovakia repel them for the first half-hour and they become edgy, a much closer contest could ensue.
England 3-1 Slovakia
Graham Lister, Goal.com