Slovenia will be tricky foe

[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

12 comments about "Slovenia will be tricky foe".
  1. Derek Mccracken, June 17, 2010 at 9:30 a.m.

    Why does everyone keep stating that this is a "must win" for the U.S? Why do some sports writers, like this one, state that Slovenia may play for a tie ("While the Slovenians could play it cagey with a tie in mind.")?

    A tie WOULD NOT benefit Slovenia. Think about it . . . If we tied, we'd go into our last game with 2 points against the weakest team in the group, Algeria, needing a very "doable" win. Slovenia would go into their game against the toughest team in the group, England with 4 points needing at least a tie against a team that would be extremely tough for them to tie.

    Experts probably would forecast a win by the U.S. against Algeria and a loss by Slovenia against England.

    If that is the case, and if we tie Slovenia, that would finish the U.S. with 5 points and Slovenia with 4 points.

    Why would Slovenia play for a tie against the U.S. which would mean it would probably need to, at least, tie England in it's last game? A very tough task indeed.

  2. James Froehlich, June 17, 2010 at 9:46 a.m.

    Derek, your logic makes sense. Given Bradley's failure to develop a team based on skillful,creative play, despite having talent like Donovan and Dempsey, I would say we are in big trouble against Slovenia. Many of us are hoping to see Torres start in order to eliminate the current creative deficiency. However, you can't turn on creativity like an electric switch. Since BB has had no interest in creative play up till now, I think he'll play for a 0-0 game and let everything rest on beating Algeria. It makes me soooooo proud to play like we did 20 years ago!!! Congratulations BB.
    I would rather go home a Spain than go through an Australia.

  3. Jim Murphy, June 17, 2010 at 10:02 a.m.

    "In their last five games against European foes, the Americans are 1-4-0"
    excluding Saturday's game against England, obviously...

  4. Ted Westervelt, June 17, 2010 at 10:57 a.m.

    Excellent scouting report. If you assume that England is going to make it through, this is a "must not lose". Slovenia on the cusp of qualification for second round. US better feel backs against the wall. They're the Rodney Dangerfield here, not us. (Sorry Sunil)

    Still a lot of questions out there. Can we score regularly in this tournament without a Brian McBride? We may not score at all without a Clint Dempsey. Were the final warmups really auditions for virtually every forward position? Or was it a crafty plan hatched by Donovan, Bradley and Garber a year ago, as Klinsmann suggested?

    If we lose, Bradley and his woefully inexperienced forward line become another bizarre footnote in American soccer history.

    And Lando? His one goal in this competition was as pivotal as it was lucky in 2002. It got us through to round 2, but wasn't even a shot.

    If someone has convinced him that he's the man, and should be piling pressure on the rest of the team, I hope they are right.

    Then, there's Alexi Lalas, who pins the future of the American game on their shoulders, and pronounces this as the weakest group.

    I'm all for brash confidence, but this is starting to feel a little desperate. There are asses on the line here, but I think they might be sitting in an office in Manhattan, and not out on the field in the RSA.

  5. David Mont, June 17, 2010 at 12:07 p.m.

    Didn't Donovan score three goals in 2002 (if you include the Portugal goal)?

  6. David Mont, June 17, 2010 at 12:09 p.m.

    Absolutely agree with Derek. I've been saying the same thing since the England game -- a draw will be a better result for the US than Slovenia.

  7. Power Dive, June 17, 2010 at 12:15 p.m.

    I'll agree that it isn't as much of a must-win game as it is a must-not-lose game. However, if we don't win, we put ourselves in a true must-win situation against Algeria and then we have to sit and wait until we see what happens with England/Slovenia and potential tie-breakers. Also, if you want to consider the broader picture and the potential to make a run in the tournament, the game is an absolute must-win if we want to avoid Germany in the round of 16.

  8. Karl Ortmertl, June 17, 2010 at 12:49 p.m.

    You can bet the ranch that BBradley is playing for the 0-0 tie. That means we'll be watching Clark and MBradley again. Assuming we get the "result", we better have a creative lineup in there against Algeria. That means Torres and Donovan in the middle where he can see the ball. Relying on MBradley to get Donovan the ball means that Donovan turns into a non-factor. I worry about going for the 0-0 tie with this group. Our "D" just isn't that tight and is prone to the big mistake against anybody.

  9. Alex Lozano, June 17, 2010 at 1:09 p.m.

    Great analysis! I agree totally with Power's comments & hope we don't play "not to lose" but "to win"...however, knowing Bradley Sr., I'm not holding my breath.

  10. John D. Archimede, June 17, 2010 at 1:30 p.m.

    USA wins 2-1 because Tim Howard is the difference. Slovenia will not contain Jose Altidore in this game. Go USA!

  11. Robert Heinrich, June 17, 2010 at 2:26 p.m.

    Confidence is an important asset going into any game. Aside from all the personnel questions, I think this squad has team cohesion and resiliency. When looking back at their European record, I think the players will think more about Confederations Cup and the draw with England (which they were supposed to lose) than the games they lost, several of which were being used to try and develop depth in the squad. I think the players go into the game confident they will come away with the 3 points. While they certainly have to respect any team at this level, there is no reason to fear Slovenia.

  12. Steven SIegel, June 17, 2010 at 5:21 p.m.

    Algeria was the better side than Slovenia. It was a cruel result. Slovenia showed nothing in that game. If they are confident, then that is good for the US, because they did nothing last week to earn that confidence.

    Algeria will be a more difficult opponent than Slovenia for the US, so I hope the US gets the result against Slovenia tomorrow; the final game will nor be easy at all.

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