World Cup Countdown – Underestimate Slovenia at your peril

Milivoje Novakovic

When Slovenia qualified for its first ever World Cup in 2002, it became the smallest ever nation to play on soccer’s biggest stage.

Now the 19-year-old country, which split from Yugoslavia in 1991, has done it again and finds itself in Group C with the USA, England and Algeria.

The Slovenians have been dismissed by oddsmakers as 150-1 longshots to win the tournament and considered unlikely to progress beyond stage one, ranked 12-1 third favorites of four.

However, it would dangerous for anyone here in the United States to believe it’s going to be a cakewalk for Bob Bradley’s men and England to make the last 16 from a group dubbed as the ‘group of life’.

Beating hotly fancied Russia in a two legged play-off should be warning enough that Slovenia is not turning up to South Africa for a spot of wildlife sightseeing and to lose all three group games, like it did in 2002.

Coach Matjaz Kek was an unpopular choice when appointed nearly three years ago and was labeled ‘Kekec’, a slang term for a naïve fool. He even told Zlatko Dedic in a phone conversation in 2007 that the forward did not figure in his plans anymore. Dedic went on to score the all decisive goal against Russia which guaranteed Slovenia its place in South Africa.

However, Kek has won over critics, adopting a successful 4-4-2 formation which sees his team play a neat, short passing game.

It includes experienced central defender Bostjan Cesar, two attacking full-backs in Bojan Jokic and Miso Brecko, and West Bromwich Albion’s Robert Koren, who is partnered in midfield by Aleksandar Radosavljevic.

Up front, Dedic partners the star of the team, Cologne striker Milivoje Novakovic.

Another to keep an eye out for is midfielder Rene Krhin, a 19-year-old who has begun to make waves at Inter Milan.

Slovenia’s clash with England on June 23 will be interesting to say the least, following a rather heated friendly game between the pair last September. Fabio Capello’s boys won that game 2-1, but Slovenia’s players vowed afterwards that they intend to wind up Wayne Rooney — who won a rather dubious penalty — and exact revenge on the English.

Before that, however, it plays against the United States in Johannesburg on June 18 and this game will have a critical bearing on who qualifies for the second stage.

It is hard to envisage the Slovenians losing every match this time round (it should at least overcome Algeria), and that means they will be in there with a shout of progression. England and USA – – you have been warned!

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