Vladimir Weiss could be set to lead his country to a first-ever appearance at a major finals

By Peterjon Cresswell in Bratislava
With the arguable exception of Bosnia, the big surprise of the current European World Cup qualifying campaign are Slovakia. Separated from Czechoslovakia in 1993, and forever in the shadow of their former overlords, the modest Slovaks currently top Group 3 – two points ahead of Northern Ireland with a game in hand, five in front of Poland and an astonishing seven clear of group favourites Czech Republic.

Matters will come to a head on September 5 when the Czechs – shock losers at home to Slovakia in April – come to Bratislava. So just how have the Slovaks, who have never made the finals of a major tournament, managed to get so close this time?

Sensational transformation
The answer might lie with coach Vladimir Weiss. A member of the 1990 Czechoslovakia squad at the World Cup finals in Italy, the Bratislava-born midfielder also played 12 times for the newly independent Slovakia before taking up coaching. His stock in trade seems to be working miracles with meagre resources, and in his first job he transformed Artmedia Bratislava (now MFK Petrzalka) into league champions for the first time. He also took them into the group phase of the Champions League with a sensational 5-0 first-leg victory over Celtic.

After a spell in Russia with Saturn Moscow, he returned to Artmedia and led them to the double before taking the job of national team coach.

Among the mainstays of Weiss’ current side is Martin Skrtel, who is a regular in Liverpool’s back four. Originally a left winger, Skrtel switched to centre-back for Slovakia’s youth team at the age of 16 and progressed from local side Trencin to Zenit St Petersburg before moving to the Premier League in January 2008.

Marek Cech, of West Bromwich Albion via Porto, also has experience in the English top-flight, as has Chelsea teenager Miroslav Stoch, a bright prospect who made his national debut this year and scored his first international goal, against San Marino, in Slovakia’s last qualifying game.

Waiting in the wings is the coach’s own son, also called Vladimir Weiss, an Under-21 international who is a member of Manchester City’s star-studded squad and who scored against Chelsea in the FA Youth Cup Final last year.

Another reliable performer is Lokomotiv Moscow defender Jan Durica, while Marek Hamsik of Napoli links defence and attack. Hamsik also scored the winning goal in Slovakia’s 2-1 win over Northern Ireland at the start of the qualifying campaign.

Approaching a century of appearances, captain Miroslav Karhan is with newly promoted Mainz in Germany after spells at Real Betis, Besiktas and Wolfsburg. A regular for Slovakia since 1995, the 33-year-old is hoping to make a major finals at the eighth time of asking. Meanwhile, another Bundesliga regular, Stanislav Sestak of Bochum, has a habit of scoring vital goals at the right time and it was his two-minute brace six minutes from time that reversed the scoreline to beat Poland in October.

The most unlikely hero, though, is Erik Jendrisek of Kaiserslautern. Voted Slovakia’s young player of the season in 2002-03, the 22-year-old striker became a national hero when he scored the 83rd-minute winner in April’s 2-1 over Czech Republic in Prague – a result that led to the Czechs sacking coach Petr Rada and six players facing international bans after they were seen out in a restaurant following the shock defeat.

A win on home soil against a depleted Czech outfit will leave the Slovaks with just three more qualifying games: Northern Ireland and Poland away, and Slovenia at home. Slovakia in South Africa? Stranger things have happened.