Martin Škrtel says Slovakia are on the brink of a "historic breakthrough" as they close in on their first major finals since independence, yet the Czech Republic – the nation that have done best since their 1993 divorce – could stand in their way.
When the draw for 2010 FIFA World Cup qualifying was made in November 2007 few looked beyond Poland and the Czech Republic as they weighed up the likely frontrunners for an admittedly even-looking Group 3. Slovakia, though, have given short shrift to such predictions and five wins in six games – including a 2-1 triumph in Prague in April – has left them in the driving seat ahead of the Northern Ireland and Slovenia with the favourites, Poland and the Czechs, cast adrift. "We've never had such a big chance to advance to a final tournament," announced midfielder Miroslav Karhan, a member of the international setup since 1995.
The 33-year-old provided a big scare when he sprained his right ankle in 1. FSV Mainz 05's 2-0 defeat by VfL Borussia Mönchengladbach on Friday. He left the stadium on crutches but is in the squad, and asked about his chances of lining up against the Czech Republic on Saturday he is unequivocal: "The pain is receding. I want to play." Coach Vladimír Weiss would be loathe to lose his experience, not least because Karhan is the sole survivor of Slovakia's famous 2-1 victory over the Czech Republic at the Tehelné Pole stadium in 1998 World Cup qualifying. A repeat this weekend would be a massive boost to their hopes of a place in South Africa, even if their illustrious opponents welcome back Jan Koller and Tomáš Rosický for the first time in 15 months and nearly two years respectively.
Weiss admits that with the likes of those two to call upon, the Czech Republic are on paper the strongest team in Group 3, but points out his side "have seven more points". He added: "I'm convinced we can do it. The most important thing is for the players to keep a clear head. Whoever retains their calm the best will come out on top." Retaining composure in Bratislava may not be easy, with the game sold out within two hours of tickets going on sale. A trip to Northern Ireland awaits on Wednesday but Škrtel, back from a broken jaw, has only one game on his mind. "It will be a crucial match on Saturday," said the Liverpool FC defender. "We feel we can make a historic breakthrough. We long to prove our position is no mistake. We want to prove we're now better than the Czech Republic."
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