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Slovenia have eyes on prize after revival

Midway through qualifying, Slovenia's FIFA World Cup bid looked over but a record-equalling three straight wins have revived hopes ahead of games with Norway and Switzerland.

Slovenia celebrate Milivoje Novakovič's goal against Iceland
Slovenia celebrate Milivoje Novakovič's goal against Iceland ©AFP/Getty Images

"We need points and we need the fans to help us get them." It is becoming a familiar refrain from Slovenia boss Srečko Katanec, but with Group E so tight there really is no other way of saying it.

Entering the last five days of FIFA World Cup qualifying five of the six teams in the section are right in the hunt, even if realistically four are vying for second place as Switzerland have all but wrapped up top spot. Indeed, the Swiss could confirm progress with a draw in Albania on Friday before they host Slovenia on Tuesday – but Slovenia, in third position, refuse to look that far ahead.

There is good reason for caution as Katanec's troops must first overcome fourth-placed Norway, a side they have never beaten in six attempts. "Our focus is on Norway," stressed experienced forward Milivoje Novakovič. "Only three points against them on Friday will keep us in the race for Brazil." Novakovič has been a pivotal figure in the team's revival, his return from the international wilderness coinciding with a national-record three straight competitive wins (against Iceland, Albania and Cyprus) for a side that languished on three points after five games.

Novaković, 34, has scored twice during the surge and, now plying his trade in Japan's J. League with Omiya Ardija, says he is savouring every moment. "At my age I just have to enjoy every national team get-together and game. I always give my all to help the team, especially the younger guys." That experience may be crucial for a side shorn of key Serie A-based midfielders Valter Birsa and Josip Iličič through injury.

Katanec reckons home support will be crucial as he leads his charges out in Maribor – Slovenia's footballing capital – for the first time. "I will not repeat myself like a parrot, but we need points and help from the crowd," said the 50-year-old, who has overseen home matches in Ljubljana since his appointment last January. "Hopefully the Stadion Ljudski vrt will be full, with the fans really ready for this, our final qualifier at home."

Slovenia have stuck with the routine that has brought them success of late: convening at the team hotel at Brdo pri Kranju and training in nearby Kranj before they depart for Maribor on Thursday. It should help focus the mind and captain Boštjan Cesar knows what is required. "We have to be careful and patient against Norway. If we only score in the 90th minute and do not concede, then it will be great."

Only then could minds wander to the next task. Come close of play on Friday, Switzerland may already be through and Iceland – who entertain Cyprus – confirmed as second-place finishers, making Slovenia's efforts academic. Yet it may be no accident that Katanec and Co's final qualifier is in Berne, stage of one of football's unlikeliest comebacks at the 1954 World Cup. First, though, Slovenia just need those points – and the crowd's help – as their coach demanded.