Slovakia-New Zealand Preview

Qualifying for the World Cup may be good enough for New Zealand,

but Slovakia is looking to make its trip to South Africa much more

memorable.

Slovakia will try to get its World Cup debut off to a strong

start Tuesday when it faces New Zealand for the first time in

Rustenburg.

Slovakia, ranked 34th, is in its first major tournament since

Czechoslovakia split in 1993.

The team earned its first appearance at the World Cup at the

expense of the Czech Republic. The Slovaks went 7-2-1 to

surprisingly top a qualifying group that included the Czechs and

Poland, both of which qualified for the last two World Cups.

Slovakia fell short of reaching the 2006 Cup, losing 6-2 on

aggregate to Spain in a playoff.

In South Africa, Slovakia is in solid position to advance from

Group F, which includes reigning champion Italy, Paraguay and New

Zealand – the second-lowest ranked team in the tournament at

78th.

Marek Hamsik will likely play a big part in any success for

Slovakia. The 22-year-old midfielder is one of the best young

playmakers in the world and has eight goals in 32 games for the

national team, including game-winners in 2-1 qualifying victories

over the Czechs and Northern Ireland.

Hamsik is coming off a strong season with Napoli in Italy’s

Serie A, leading the team with 12 goals.

He’ll likely start behind forward Stanislav Sestak, who has 11

goals in 31 appearances with six coming in qualifying and another

in a 3-0 win over Costa Rica on June 5.

Unlike Hamsik, Sestak is trying to shake off a difficult club

season, finding the net six times in 29 games as Bochum was

relegated from the German Bundesliga.

New Zealand is familiar with struggling in front of the net,

having been outscored 8-3 in losing four of five friendlies heading

into the World Cup.

That’s slightly better than the All Whites’ showing at last

summer’s Confederations Cup as they failed to score while going

0-2-1.

Despite those poor showings, they might be happy to just reach

the World Cup for the first time since 1982, when they went

0-3.

New Zealand’s qualification was made even easier when rival

Australia switched from the Oceania region to Asia after the last

World Cup to face stiffer competition.

The move paid off for New Zealand, which went 5-1-0 in a

qualifying group that included New Caledonia, Fiji and Vanuatu

before beating Bahrain 1-0 on aggregate in a playoff on forward

Rory Fallon’s goal.

Defender Ryan Neslen will try to shore up the All Whites’ leaky

back line. He’s by far the team’s most accomplished player,

spending the last five years with Blackburn in England’s Premier

League.

Nelsen, who is captain for both club and country, is only one of

seven All Whites who plays in Europe while two members of the team

– midfielders Simon Elliott and David Mulligan – are free

agents.