Slovenian women's football has taken a huge step forward in recent years but as they prepare to welcome Ukraine in the first leg of the play-offs on Sunday, home coach Tanja Lekić admits the visitors "are the favourites".
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Having entered UEFA European Women's Championship qualifying in 1995 – and conceded 60 goals in six defeats – Slovenia returned to international female football for the 2007 FIFA Women's World Cup and won all of their matches in a second-tier group. That allowed them a place in main qualifying this time around, albeit in the lowest tier of seeds, and they finished third to go into the play-offs despite starting with a 5-0 home loss to Serbia and 6-0 defeat in France.
However, Slovenia coach Tanja Lekić knows they are outsiders when Ukraine visit Dravograd for the first leg on Sunday. "There are no doubts about who are the favourites," Lekić told uefa.com. "But there is no way we will surrender. We are ready to make good use of any given chance to cause a possible surprise."
Lekić has stuck with a familiar squad for the play-offs, built around leading domestic clubs ŽNK Krka and ŽNK Pomurje. Their main strength? "Fighting spirit! They never give up," Lekić said. "The team are also pretty experienced. In crucial moments, they know what to do. I picked the players I can trust. We had some ups and downs early in qualification, but were making progress from match to match. At the moment we have strong and experienced team that are ready to face Ukraine. I know that my players will fight from first minute until the last whistle."
Ukraine have only once been as far as the play-offs, losing 4-1 on aggregate to England eight years ago. This time around Anatoliy Kutsev's side came close to automatic qualification from Group 5 after starting with six straight wins but finished with a 1-1 home draw against Portugal and 1-0 loss in Denmark to end up second. The coach is hoping for a similarly fast start to the play-off. "The winner will be decided on 30 October in Chernigov but despite that we will play to win in Slovenia," said the 49-year-old. "'It is very important to score at least once away from home to have that slight psychological advantage before the second leg."
Former FC Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk, FC Kryvbas Kryvyi Rih and FC SKA Kyiv defender Kutsev has a squad drawn in a large part from the strong Russian league and is sticking with the tactics that ensured Ukraine conceded just three goals in eight qualifiers. "Our girls realise what a chance they have now," said Kutsev. "'Everyone is bursting to get into action and my first and foremost task is not to let them burn out."