Slovakia exceed Euro 2016 expectations despite last 16 exit
Slovakia's Euro 2016 is over after a defeat to Germany. Here's an assessment of their campaign in France and where the national team goes from here.
At a glance
We cannot say Slovakia disappointed their fans at Euro 2016. In fact, they played quite well in reaching the knockout phase. People have to be realistic, and nobody expected that such a small country would be able to beat superpowers on a regular basis. Germany, the opponent in the Round of 16, was simply too good.
Slovakia's best moment came in the second group stage match against Russia, in which Slovakia showed all their strengths in a few minutes: Marek Hamsik's brilliant long-range pass set up Vladimir Weiss for the first goal, and then Napoli's playmaker scored one of the most beautiful goals of the Euro.
However, Slovakia uselessly lost important points against Wales when they could have won, if they had not made big mistakes in the defence, especially the one committed by goalkeeper Matus Kozacik on Gareth Bale's free kick. Kozacik improved in the next matches and, in the end, was one of the best Slovak players in France. He was very important in holding England to a 0-0 draw and made several saves against Germany, including Mesut Oezil's penalty.
Nobody will be disappointed in Slovakia, though some might wonder if they could have played better against Germany, because that performance certainly was not their peak.
The 2-1 defeat to Wales in the first match. Before the match, everybody was optimistic and expected three points if Slovakia really had ambitions to go far at the tournament. However, Slovakia conceded an early goal and then had to try to break through a perfectly organised, packed defence -- always a hard task for Slovakia, a team used to relying on quick counterattacks and not keeping a ball for a long time.
Even so, only few people expected to advance through Germany, and Joachim Low's side gave clear proof of their quality. However, in the qualifiers, Slovakia upset the odds many times. Players often went beyond their limits, but against Germany, that was something Slovakia lacked. It cannot be said that the players would disappoint, but a few of them, who should have been stars and leaders on the pitch, such as Juraj Kucka, simply underperformed.
Still, it is necessary to add that the team's attitude in every match was perfect, and even the cruel defeat in the first match against Wales did not destroy Slovakia's confidence. This generation of players achieved big success by getting into the knockout phase of the big tournament and built a foundation for the future. To sum it up, there are certainly more positives than negatives.
Marek Hamsik, without a doubt. In leading the team out of the group stage, he showed that he is Slovakia's most important player. His individual quality was a subject of opponents' worries before all matches. Napoli's key player has showed why so many big clubs have been interested in him, and their interest should be even more serious in the next weeks.
Hamsik showed everything he was capable of: brilliant passes, a beautiful goal against Russia and an ability to encourage teammates around him. At different moments in the tournament, it was clear how his energy pumped up the whole team.
Now, everybody knows who Hamsik is, and it is not due to his eccentric "Mohawk" haircut. At 28, he is a complete player, able to calm the game down and, when it is necessary, to make an eye-catching move too. He always gives 100 percent on the pitch, and that is the reason he is so important for this country.
There are few aspects in which Slovakia can improve, especially before their September World Cup qualifier versus England. Unfortunately, Slovakia have a lack of creativity on the pitch and are mainly dependent on Hamsik's ideas. Other players in the midfield have to be more active and visible. There are a lot of promising young players in this position -- many of them did not make the Euro squad -- so there is room for experimenting.
Slovakia do not have any reliable goal scorer, and it was a big disadvantage for this team. As coach Jan Kozak has a very limited pool of players to choose from, it might be the best option to get used to a system without a typical centre-forward, at least until the day when some young forward emerges.
In the future, Slovakia have to prepare better physically, as many players were not able to stay on the pitch for the full 90 minutes. In many cases, it was a consequence of their situation in the clubs, as training sessions in the Qatar climate are likely not as intense as training sessions in Europe.
The team has to improve their ability to keep possession for longer periods and be more comfortable on the ball, even if this is a problem in general for Slovak football.
Lukas Vrablik is ESPN FC's Slovakia blogger for Euro 2016. Twitter: @LukasVrablik