Lubomir Moravcik was in the Stadion Antona Malatinskeho 12 months ago when Slovakia dismantled Gordon Strachan’s side.
Scotland – who had required a last-minute equaliser to salvage a draw from their previous tie at home to Lithuania and who would also lose their next, against England at Wembley, by the same 3-0 scoreline they endured in Trnava – were present but far from correct that night and Moravcik believed that there was no prospect of them claiming a play-off place for next summer’s World Cup finals.
He was taken aback by the resigned, passive performance from the visitors and could see no way back for them. Now, though, he is not so sure.
The former Celtic midfielder, a member of the former Czechoslovakia team which lost to eventual winners Germany at Italia 90, also represented Slovakia on 38 occasions. However, his four years at Parkhead has led him to expect more fight from the Scots last year.
“I am really surprised Scotland still have a chance of qualifying because they were very poor; I didn’t recognise the Scotland players in that game,” he said. “Many people in our media didn’t understand what had happened to Scotland after that game. They were not dangerous, they sat back and Slovakia were able to play and score goals. There was no reaction from Scotland to try to do something in the game.
“They came to our country, they got beaten and they went home. I was surprised by the mentality of the Scottish players.”
Moravcik, currently a coach with MFK Zvolen in the country’s second tier, concedes that Slovakia also started the qualification process slowly, losing 1-0 at home to England and again in Slovenia. Now he believes there is not a great deal between the teams.
“If you watch qualification, the top five leagues in Europe are all likely to be there,” he said. “Germany, England, France made a stupid mistake against Luxembourg – it’s unbelievable – but only Italy is struggling because they are in a group with Spain.
“That’s their problem but Italy will be favourites to go through in the play-off. I would expect the big five to be there. Apart from Andorra, San Marino and Gibraltar, who never win a game, the other 45 teams they are similar. England scored twice against Slovakia but they didn’t have clear chances in front of 80,000 at Wembley. That’s because there are no weak teams in Europe, outside of the minnows. I expect it to be close between Scotland and Slovakia.”
However, while the hosts have not reached the finals of a major tournament since 1998, the Slovaks (whose first qualifying campaign was for Euro 96), progressed to the last 16 at the 2010 World Cup finals and Euro 2016.
“Slovakia are in a better position because this group, this generation have five players who played when we qualified for the World Cup in South Africa and who also played in the European Championship in France. Now this team is strong mentally because they have had success. The Under-21s also did well at the European Championships in Poland this summer. There is a very good mix of players, experience in defence with Martin Skrtel and then we have Marek Hamsik and Vladimir Weiss. So it’s guys with seven or eight years of experience in the national team and then some youngsters.
“We don’t have a lot of pressure on our team because they have confidence; the important players have already played in a World Cup and the youngsters are hungry to help them qualify again.
“There is, though, a lot of pressure on Scotland. At Hampden there are 50,000 people, it’s a fantastic atmosphere and the Scottish fans will push the team.
“But the pressure is hard – you have to be mentally very strong, wait for one good chance to score and then keep a clean sheet. It’s easier for Slovakia than it is for Scotland. After this, Scotland must go to win in Slovenia and maybe if you bring a lot of pounds there you’ll get three points!”
While Moravcik is not surprised that England are five points clear at the top of Group F, he does not believe they are there on merit and has no faith in them to do well in Russia.
“England have been lucky,” he claimed. “Imagine they didn’t score in stoppage time in Slovakia to win; that would be two points gone and then they did it again to draw with Scotland.
“Without those late goals they would be on 17 points and Slovakia and Scotland would have 16. England would have Slovenia at home and Lithuania away, still having to qualify.
“They are not a great team, they don’t have top players expect for Harry Kane. He could be a player for Real Madrid or Bayern Munich but he plays for Tottenham Hotspur, a team who have no chance of winning the Champions League – they might not even reach the last eight.”
l Moravcik was speaking at a William Hill event. William Hill is a proud sponsor of Scottish football.