Giants against giant killers, big vs. small, quantity over quality? Whatever you wish to call it, Friday’s Group C match between the United States and Slovenia is set to pose the largest country in this summer’s tournament against the smallest.
Slovenia, with a population of just over two million, goes head-to-head with the world power of America whose population stands at around 309 million. After the first round of matches last week it is the tiny Slovenians though who could be on the verge of knocking out the Americans and possibly advance themselves. With a scrappy one nil win in their opening match against Algeria, Matjaz Kek’s men could double their points tally to six with a win on Friday and make it all but impossible for Bob Bradley and the USA team to go through.
Assuming England will collect all three points later on in the day against the Algerians, it is imperative that the United States achieve a win at all costs against a team high on confidence. Giving the squad a welcomed boost will be the fit again Tim Howard. After a crunching collision with England striker Emile Heskey in Rustenburg, fears began to surface he had broken a rib and would be ruled out of action for the foreseeable future. These fears were allayed though as it became clear after examination that the Everton shot-stopper had only sustained bruising to his ribs.
With Howard fit to play, Bradley is expected to announce an unchanged starting XI from the team that fought back against Fabio Capello’s England last Saturday. The Slovenians meanwhile may look to change things around slightly from the XI that earned them their first ever win in a finals competition. The most likely casualty will be Zlatko Dedic who, after failing to impress in just under an hours play, was replaced by the largely influential, Zlatan Ljubijankic. Kek will not be forced into making any changes though as he prepares with a fully fit squad. The USA team are unlikely to be overly daunted by their upcoming fixture though. Having been lauded for their result against the Three Lions, they face a team with much less experience, strength, wealth and world ranking. Playing against the 34th ranked Slovenian team who, competing in only their second ever appearance at a World Cup finals, will oppose a completely different threat to Bradley’s men in comparison to the English. The United States Coach has been studying the Slovenians though and is prepared for what is in store. He said: “The Slovenia game might be more of a chess match. They are a hard working team. They are organised. They have an ability to sit back a little more and still get you on the counter.”
Kek and his Slovenia team are by no means push-over’s though. Having shown on the world stage what they are capable of last week, they will have to call upon experience if they are to defeat the 14th ranked USA team. And they won’t have too far to look if they are to recall upon a historic victory. Going into their play-off match against Russia earlier this year most people didn’t give Slovenia a prayer. After a dramatic and bad-tempered affair it was Slovenia who prospered and earned themselves a spot in this summer’s competition. Kek stated after the match his players had “realised a dream”. They had indeed realised a dream. Playing their first ever match only in 1992, after the split of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia a year earlier. The dragons, as they are known back home, have certainly come a long way since then and are keen to prove what they are capable of on the highest stage of all. One man who will not be underestimating the Slovenians will be LA Galaxy midfielder and national team captain, Landon Donovan. Understanding what is at stake for his team were they to lose on Friday, Donovan is not dismissing the Slovenian’s team ethic. He stated: “In all likelihood, if we lose, we’re out of the tournament.” The former Bayer Leverkusen star added: “In theory, it seems easier to beat them because they don’t have a Rooney or a Lampard or a Gerrard. But the reality is they are tough to beat because they are a solid team and they have played together for a long time.”
Crunch time for both teams is fast approaching then but will it be the minnows of Slovenia or the might of America that take a step closer to qualification from Group C?