PRAGUE (Reuters) - If Slovakia start the European Championship finals the way they did the qualifiers the rest of Group B had better beware.
Six straight wins, including victory against champions Spain, set them on the way to qualifying in second place in their group for what will be their first Euro finals since becoming an independent nation in 1993.
However, they face a tough task in France against group opponents England, Russia and fellow Euro debutants Wales, all ranked higher than the Slovaks.
First up they must muzzle the rampaging threat of Real Madrid winger Gareth Bale, who netted seven of Wales’s 11 goals in qualifying, on June 11. Bale has fond memories of Slovakia’s defence, having scored his first international goal against them in a Euro 2008 qualifier.
Although Slovakia have sometimes struggled to score, failing to find the net for three successive games midway through their qualifying campaign, they are not reliant on one source of goals with nine different scorers chipping in on the road to France.
Leading the way was Marek Hamsik, the 28-year-old Napoli midfielder, who finished top scorer with five goals. He will be relied upon to control the middle and get forward at every opportunity.
If Slovakia can get their attack firing, they may fancy their chances in their second game against a Russian side who conceded four goals to France in a recent friendly.
The final qualifier will bring a tougher foe in England, who won all 10 of their qualifiers and have beaten Slovakia in three previous meetings.
“I like the idea of playing against England in the final group game,” Hamsik told the UEFA website after the draw. “We will know before the first whistle whether that is a good thing or not.”
Slovakia are capable of a surprise, having knocked out Italy at the group stage in the 2010 World Cup — their only major tournament in the past quarter-century.
As part of the old Czechoslovakia they won the tournament in 1976 and had third-place finishes in 1980 and 1960.
Editing by Neil Robinson