Slovenia Camp Focus - Courageous Slovenia bow out at first hurdle
Landon Donovan broke the hearts of Slovenia, who bowed out of the World Cup at the group stage for the second time in their history. Donovan’s goal in the 91st minute gave the United States States a 1-0 victory over Algeria and sent them through as group winners. Matjez Kek’s team will be heartbroken after a gutsy display against England looked to be enough to see them through, despite losing 1-0 to a goal from Tottenham Hotspurs’ Jermain Defoe. There was so much hope and optimism for the Eastern Europeans as they topped the group coming into the last match. As expected England came out and attacked right from the first whistle and Slovenia handled the threat of Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard and others with great effect.
Slovenia Coach Kek had said on the eve of the game: “They (England) have to get through to the second round - anything else is unimaginable. It’s different for Slovenia. It was a goal, now a wish, but nothing more.” After the defeat and Slovenia’s exit, he responded: “I hope England win at the World Cup and I think England are a favourite. They played well but at the end we could have levelled and made a draw. Sport is very unpredictable. Some people will think I'm disappointed but I am proud that I have come so far with this Slovenia side. At the end it was indescribable but this is sport.”
Kek has shown his honesty and sincerity throughout Slovenia’s campaign and they can jet back to Europe knowing that they have made all two million of their population proud. Samir Handanovic was awesome in goal and made marvellous saves to deny Defoe, Gerrard and Wayne Rooney. After spending six years in Serie A with Udinese, expect one of Europe’s elite to enquire about his availability for the new season. Robert Koren had another good game in central midfield and the free agent will not be waiting long to find himself a new club. The lively Valter Birsa tested David James on several occasions with his in swinging free-kicks – he could well be welcomed with open arms to a bigger club.
Therefore, there are many positives for the Slovenian team and Kek to ponder over on their long journey home. They have certainly made their mark on the world stage and impressed many neutrals. The display against Algeria was lifeless and dull but they ground out the all-important win. Then they really sprung into life against the United States and a wonder goal from Birsa certainly made England fans stand up and take notice. The only flaw seemed to be how they operated defensively. The inexperience really filtered through to the surface in the second-half against the United States States when they were unable to hold onto a two goal advantage. Kek will be more than aware of this and certainly marshal his troops back into shape for the European Championship 2012 qualifying campaign.
The performance itself against England was average. Despite being on the back foot for most of it they looked dangerous going forward and if it was not for the efforts of Matthew Upson and John Terry, Slovenia would be looking forward to their first ever 2nd round place at the World Cup. However, it was not to be and the smallest nation competing at this year’s tournament can hold their heads up high and focus on the future. It is essential no one looks back at missed opportunities and the togetherness the squad and management showed was first class.
Kek believes his players need to be left alone for a while to recover from the devastating blow Donovan dealt them in Port Elizabeth. Who would have thought that at the start of the tournament as Slovenia were expected to be whipping boys along with Algeria? It just shows how far they have come over the past two years and full credit to Kek and all of the Slovenian management who have ushered a much unfancied side to the brink of the 2nd round.