Slovakia coach Jan Kozak looks ahead to the Euro 2016 finals and specifically how to deal with Gareth Bale.
World Soccer: What was your first reaction when you heard the draw?
Jan Kozak: First of all, all 24 teams who are taking part in the Euro 2016 finals have got there on merit. They’ve all been good enough to qualify. Therefore there are no weak teams in France.
England is a big football country, with a huge tradition and very strong league. They won all 10 qualifying matches so that shows their quality. They must be considered as favourites in the group.
As for Russia, it was good that we played them in 2014 when they were warming up for the World Cup. But that was Russia under Fabio Capello. Since Leonid Slutsky took over they have become a different proposition altogether, with real possibilities in France.
Wales are a strong side who always play with a lot of heart and great team spirit. Their key players – Gareth Bale at Real Madrid, Aaron Ramsey at Arsenal – play for top clubs. We won’t take them lightly.
How would you compare the squad that beat the world champions, Italy, at the 2010 World Cup and the one in France?
About half-a-dozen players who starred for us in South Africa will be in France. They all gained great experience and now they’ve got six more years of top-level football under their belts. They’re better players. Therefore, along with the younger players who have come through, I would say that we’re at a higher level now. We proved that in qualifying.
How problematic is it that nearly all of your squad play abroad?
Yes, most of our players are abroad but they play for very good teams in very good leagues: Hamsik at Napoli, Kucka at Milan, Skrtel at Liverpool, and so on. This means that week in, week out, they play against good opposition. This can only be good for the national side. Yes, we have to work out the logistic of getting everyone together for short periods of time, but every national team has to do that.
Early on in your time as coach, you opted for Matus Kozacik as goalkeeper even though he hadn’t played an international in years…
The position of goalkeeper is the most important and most specific in any team. I knew I had to make the right choice so I went with my gut. I’d seen Kozacik do well with Viktoria Plzen in the Champions League. I knew he would do everything to keep his place as the number one over the established choice, Jan Mucha. He had the motivation to go out and prove himself.
How important is an established back four to your side?
Our solid back four is absolutely fundamental. These defenders don’t play for the same club, week after week, so the fact Skrtel and Durica have been together in a Slovak shirt for a decade is crucial. They can anticipate each other’s moves – when one steps forward, the other steps back, and so on.
Do you feel that Slovakia lack the fast, young players England have?
Yes, we should recognise that England have a strong team, that Roy Hodgson has brought these players through. Since the draw we have been on regular spying missions to England. We’ve been watching their players closely, anticipating how they will play. Yes, they’ve proved themselves in a top league but a major finals is a different matter.
How do you stop Bale?
I’m a big fan of Real Madrid so I’ve seen a lot of Bale these last three years. But Wales aren’t Bale alone. We proved against Spain we can defend against the best in the world. We respect Bale, of course we do, but the most important thing is that we have the team spirit to overcome Wales.
What would success be at Euro 2016?
This will be our first Euro finals as an independent nation. We will have to go out and prove ourselves. We’re not inferior to any team in France. For us, getting through the group stage would be a success. We were very strong in qualifying. Now we have to show what we can do in France.
Interview by Peterjon Cresswell