[USA-SLOVENIA] Slovenia crashed out of its first World Cup appearance in 2002 with three losses and a team torn apart by the departure of its star player. Eight years later, it has a tighter defense, a more cohesive persona -- and three points in the bag after beating Algeria, 1-0.
If Slovenia, as Landon Donovan proclaimed to the world a few days ago, is indeed a team the U.S. should -- and must -- beat on Friday in Johannesburg (TV: ESPN/Univision, 10 a.m. ET), therein lies a problem.
In World Cup qualifying, in the Gold Cup and occasionally in friendlies, the Americans struggle when the opponent sits back and dares them to make the game, which Slovenia can do as group leader.
And despite Donovan’s assertion, there’s not much grounding for confidence when the opposition is from Europe.
In their last five games against European foes, the Americans are 1-4-0, with only a 2-1 defeat of Turkey May 29 in their final send-off match on the win side of the ledger. Otherwise, it’s a grim record: 1-0 loss at Slovakia and a 3-1 thumping by Denmark last November, a 2-1 loss to the Netherlands in March, and a 4-2 defeat by Czech Republic four days prior to the Turkey match.
Those were friendlies, yet the U.S. record against Europe in the World Cup since 1990 is 1-9-3, including the 1-1 tie with England last Saturday.
And while Slovenia has the smallest population – just over two million people -- of the 32 World Cup nations, it qualified by fending off a bear of an opponent.
Against Algeria, the Slovenians started the same 11 players they used in both legs of a two-match playoff last November with Russia, which they won with an away goal after a 2-1 loss in Moscow and 1-0 victory in Maribor.
The triumph denied Russia’s temporary head coach Guus Hiddink a chance to coach in four consecutive World Cups with four different teams – the Netherlands (1998), South Korea (2002) and Australia (2006) – and surprised observers who gave the Slovenians no hope against Andrei Arshavin, Dinyar Bilyaledinov, Roman Pavyluchenko, et al.
Instead, the Americans are getting reacquainted with players they’ve seen at club level. Midfield catalyst Robert Koren plays in England for West Bromwich Albion, strikers Zlatko Dedic (Bochum) and Milivoje Novakovic (Cologne) ply their trade in Germany, and the French League employs Valter Birsa (Auxerre) and Bojan Jokic (Sochaux).
“They look like they’re strikers that work for the team,” said U.S. defender Oguchi Onyewu of Dedic and Novakovic, a classic pairing of quick, smaller forward, and taller (6-foot-3) teammate, respectively. “They’re hard workers, they run all across the field, they’re going to do the dirty work in order for their team to come out on top. We’re ready for that, it’s nothing we haven’t seen before. We just have to go out there on Friday and play the way we know how to play.”
The 4-4-2 usually utilized by Coach Matjev Kek utilizes Koren and Birsa as center mids; they are not nearly as famous as their English counterparts Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard, yet they aren’t easily stifled, either. Thus, assuming that a swap of Ricardo Clark for Jose Francisco Torres would reap plentiful benefits isn’t necessarily the case.
Slovenia conceded just four goals in its 10 qualifiers prior to the playoffs, in which it trailed the Russians, 2-0, on aggregate before substitute Nejc Pecnik headed home the rebound of a parried Koren missile with only two minutes left. That away goal decided the series after Slovenia took the home leg with a goal by Dedic just before halftime, and two Russians were sent off in the second half.
The first leg of the playoffs, a 2-1 loss in Moscow, should have a been a bigger margin for the Russians, but Slovenian keeper Samir Handanovic stopped two blistering free kicks and thwarted a close-range chance with a kick save.
He showed that same prowess against Algeria early in the match by acrobatically turning a free kick over the bar. How good he is is yet to be proven -- he's only 25 -- but he's no Robert Green.
Midfielder Araz Kirm played on the right against Algeria but can also line up on the left, as he did in the series with Russia. Like Clint Dempsey, he’s primarily right-footed and is adept at working combinations with the two forwards as well as Koren and Birsa.
Kirm will also take corners and free kicks from the left side; on set plays, Novakovic will peel to the back post, looking for a ball he can nod back across the goalmouth. Birsa is the left-footed dead ball specialist, and left back Jokic can serve a good ball from that flank as well.
“He’s a good player, a good finisher, obviously can score some good goals,” says U.S. defender Clarence Goodson of Novakovic, who scored his 15th and 16th international goals (in 39 appearances) in a pre-World Cup friendly against New Zealand June 5. “For being a big guy, he certainly likes the ball at his feet a bit. So that’ll be something we’ll try to close down and try to deny him space and time.”
Like the Americans, a goalkeeper gaffe gifted them their World Cup goal; Algeria’s Faouzi Chaouchi fumbled a tame shot from Koren in the 79th minute. Like his father, U.S. midfielder Michael Bradley knows the opposition pretty well.
“Up front, guys like Novakovic and Dedic both play in the Bundesliga,” says Bradley, a member of rival club Borussia Moenchengladbach. “Both have certainly gotten their goals in Germany [they combined for 11 this past season]. Robert Koren’s a good player, the defenders are all strong and solid players and the goalie plays at Udinese. He’s got a presence and is a good shot-blocker.”
While the Slovenians could play it cagey with a tie in mind, they have the firepower to sting the USA, plus the knowledge that a victory assures them a spot in the round of 16, no matter what happens in the other group games.
A repeat of 2002 -- when star Zlatko Zahovic feuded with coach Srecko Katanec for being substituted in the first game and was sent home -- isn't likely.
Goalkeepers: 1 Samir Handanovic (Udinese), 12 Jasmin Handanovic (Mantova), 16 Aleksander Seliga (Sparta Rotterdam).
Defenders: 13 Bojan Jokic (Chievo), 4 Marko Suler (Gent), 5 Bostjan Cesar (Grenoble), 6 Branko Ilic (Moscow Lokomotiv), 22 Matej Mavric-Rozic (Koblenz), 3 Elvedin Dzinic (Maribor), 2 Miso Brecko (FC Cologne), 19 Suad Filekovic (Maribor).
Midfielders: 17 Andraz Kirm (Wisla Krakow), 20 Andrej Komac (Maccabi Tel-Aviv), 15 Rene Krhin (Inter Milan), 21 Dalibor Stevanovic (Vitesse), 8 Robert Koren (-), 18 Aleksander Radosavljevic (Larissa), 10 Valter Birsa (Auxerre).
Forwards: 11 Milivoje Novakovic (FC Cologne), 14 Zlatko Dedic (Bochum), 9 Zlatan Ljubijankic (Gent), 7 Nejc Pecnik (Nacional), 23 Tim Matavz (FC Groningen).
Coach: Matjaz Kek