After a very promising start to their 2006 World Cup qualification campaign, the Slovenian national team will play two big matches in October. Under new coach, Branko Oblak, the team drew 1:1 with Serbia & Montenegro, then crushed Moldova before proving many experts wrong by holding Scotland to a draw at Hampden Park.
Italy and Norway will provide the answer
Slovenia lost its first three friendly games in 2004. In February, they were beaten 2:0 by Poland in a tournament in San Fernando, Spain. Then in March they were defeated 1:0 by Latvia in Celje and when they slipped to their third defeat, 2:1 against Switzerland, coach Bojan Prasnikar was replaced by Branko Oblak. Prasnikar was also heavily criticized for the team’s defensive approach during last November’s decisive playoff match for EURO 2004 against Croatia in Ljubljana. Oblak announced that he would field a much younger team who will be under no pressure to perform. Their first game augured well for the future. After Serbia & Montenegro took the lead in the 49th minute, Slovenia dominated the match and had some great chances. Zlatko Dedic made an astonishing debut and hit the bar in the 70th minute before Nastja Ceh (FC Brugge) scored from a free kick eight minutes from time. Moldova was ideal warm up Celje hosted the first qualifying game against Moldova and the 4,000 spectators in the stadium under Golovec were able to celebrate a resounding victory. Slovenia played attacking football and Milenko Acimovic was in sensational form. The former Olimpija, Red Star Belgrade and Tottenham Hotspur player, who now earns his money in Lille, France, was unstoppable in front of goal and scored all three goals. Coach Oblak was very satisfied at the post-match press conference: ‘’The first half was brilliant, we converted our chances, which has not been our strength in the past. Our national team will not go to Glasgow with a white flag, we have nothing to lose and we start every game with the same motivation.’’ German football legend, Berti Vogts, who is now coaching Scotland, was also in Celje. ‘’Slovenia played a very organized game. I was very surprised, because I didn’t know the new young players. The Slovenes were much better and could have won 6 or 7 nil. It will not be easy at Hampden Park, we’ll have to play our best football to defeat Slovenia,’’ Vogts said after the match. Big point in Glasgow The atmosphere inside the Hampden Park stadium before the game was electric. There were 38,278 fans supporting Scotland in their first qualifying match since their crushing defeat (0:6) in Amsterdam last November, in the EURO 2004 playoffs. For a number of the Slovene players it was their first time playing in front of such a huge crowd. In the first 15 minutes goalkeeper, Borut Mavric, made a name for himself. He made some huge saves and deflected a shot from Dickov onto the bar. Scotland dominated the first half but could not convert their chances. In the second half, Acimovic and Ermin Siljak both missed easy scoring opportunities that could have won the match. Siljak couldn’t take advantage of confusion in the Scottish defence and his 54th minute shot was not hit with enough power; three minutes later Acimovic lent back a little before shooting and watched as the ball sailed over the bar. ‘’One point in Glasgow is a big achievement. Our players started slowly, but played better with every passing minute. In the second half we had many chances to win the game,’’ said Oblak after the match. The goalless draw means that Slovenia now has 4 points and is sitting in second position in Group 5. Italy is a big challenge Four points from two games is very nice start, but the crucial games are still to be played. Italy, who were disappointing at EURO 2004 and were eliminated after the group stage, sacked their coach, Giovanni Trappatoni, and replaced him with Marcelo Lippi. The ‘’Azzurri’’ have started their qualifying campaign with two wins. They beat Norway in Palermo 2:1 and then scrambled to defeat Moldova 1:0 in Kishinjov. Their superstar, Alessandro Del Piero, scored in the 32nd minute to save Italy from an embarrassing draw. Slovenia and Italy have already met three times in the past. In September 1994, German referee Bernd Heynemann disallowed a clear goal scored by Darko Milanic and the game ended in a 1:1 draw. Italy then won 1:0 at home. In August 2002, Slovenia beat the Italians 1:0 in a friendly match in Trieste after Sebastjan Cimerotic scored an unbelievable goal. Just four days after the match with Italy the team take on the Norwegians in Oslo. The Scandinavians are desperate for a win after being defeated by Italy and being held to a disappointing draw with Belarus. In September 1999, Norway crushed Slovenia 4:0 in their only previous meeting in Oslo, however it was a different story in their last encounter in Arnhem during EURO 2000, with the Norwegians lucky to hold on for a 0:0 draw. The two games in October will answer many questions concerning Slovenia’s chances of qualifying for the 2006 World Cup in Germany.
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