After Slovakia's run to the last 16 of the FIFA World Cup on their debut appearance at the global showpiece in June, there may be more good times ahead for the country's footballers.
MŠK Žilina and ŠK Slovan Bratislava have both raised hopes of maintaining the feelgood factor by winning through to the play-off rounds in the UEFA Champions League and UEFA Europa League respectively. For the first time since the 2003/04 season, when they succumbed to Chelsea FC, titleholders Žilina stand a step away from a place in the UEFA Champions League group stage, following victories over Malta's Birkirkara FC and PFC Litex Lovech of Bulgaria. The identity of Žilina's play-off opponents has only lifted expectancy levels, given they face a 'derby' against Czech champions AC Sparta Praha.
It is the presence of Slovan, UEFA Cup Winners' Cup winners back in 1969, in the play-off round for the UEFA Europa League that constitutes the greater surprise after they were drawn against FK Crvena Zvezda in the third qualifying round. They managed to overcome the Serbian outfit with a 2-1 first-leg triumph in Belgrade and a subsequent 1-1 home draw featuring a man-of-the-match display from new Togolese defensive midfielder Karim Guédé and a 47-minute interruption caused by floodlight failure which cast the Štadión Pasienky into darkness. "It was a battle until the end and not helped by the blackout, but we held on and got through," said Slovan coach Jozef Jankech.
The 72-year-old Jankech, who led Slovakia's national team from 1995 to 1998, is the oldest coach in the Slovak First League. He guided Dukla Banská Bystrica to third place last term but left the club only to be tempted back to work by Slovan's offer. His new side earned widespread praise after claiming the scalp of Crvena Zvezda. The Šport newspaper declared: "It was a new Slovan in spirit, tactics and playing system. All the players looked like they really enjoyed themselves."
Slovan are optimistic they can wrest the 1. Liga title from Žilina's grasp this season but their immediate priority is to get the better of Bundesliga outfit VfB Stuttgart in a tough-looking UEFA Europa League play-off. Last year they lost badly at this stage against AFC Ajax, beaten 7-1 on aggregate, but attacking midfielder Erik Grendel believes they have the potential to go further this time. "We have nothing to lose," he said. "If we manage to repeat the performances we gave against Crvena Zvezda, I think we could cause a surprise."
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