PRAGUE (Reuters) - With his jet black mohawk there is no missing Marek Hamsik and the 28-year-old will be a highly visible presence as Slovakia embark on their first European Championship finals since becoming an independent nation in 1993.
Hamsik was Slovakia’s top scorer with five goals in a lop-sided qualifying campaign which began with six straight wins, including one over Spain, but became marked by a failure to find the net.
The Napoli midfielder was back on form for their final game against Luxembourg, scoring twice in the 4-2 win which clinched qualification.
Many hope Euro 2016 will mark a personal landmark for the four-time Slovakian player of the year who has previously faced criticism for underperforming on the international stage.
Hamsik, who has scored 17 times in 83 appearances for Slovakia, was already a key player in their 2010 World Cup campaign in South Africa -- their only other major tournament -- and was vice-captain in the team which knocked Italy out of the group stage.
Slovakia’s coach, Jan Kozak, believes his star man has matured, perhaps helped by his partnership with Vladimir Weiss who sets up many of his goals. Certainly, Hamsik’s control has improved and his forceful runs from midfield will be a feature of Slovakia’s attacks in France.
Euro 2016 represents a step up in class for the team and Slovakia will need more consistency in front of goal to make inroads in Group B, where they have been drawn with England, Russia and Wales.
Hamsik has said the most important game will be the team’s opener against Wales, a game that could define the tournaments of both teams.
Editing by Neil Robinson