The first of series of articles entitled ‘Champion League – Who are YA?’ profiles the most well known and also some of the less established clubs competing in the Champions League. This week’s profiled club is MSK Zilina from Slovakia.
Founded in 1908 MSK Zilina has risen to the summit of Slovakian domestic football in recent years and are making their first ever appearance in the UEFA Champions League group stages this season. MSK’s previous brushes with Europe’s premier football competition has seen the Slovakians reached the second qualifying round in 2002/03, 2004/05 and 2007/08 before finally making the breakthrough in 2010/11.
MSK’s rise to success in the Slovakian domestic league has also seen an upturn in fortunes for the international squad. The Slovaks overcame the challenge of neighbours the Czech Republic, Slovenia and Poland to qualify for the FIFA 2010 World Cup in South Africa. Coach Vladimir Weiss’s side were drawn against Italy, New Zealand and Paraguay in Group F and shocked the world by finishing runners-up to qualify for the knockout phase.
Only a late Wesley Sneijeder goal saw the eventual finalists the Netherlands through 2 -1 but Slovakia had made their mark on the world stage and have since followed up with some encouraging results in their Euro 2012 qualifiers.
MSK are the Slovak First League defending champions having secured their fifth title in 2009/10 to equal Slovan Bratislava’s record championship successes. A nine match unbeaten run towards the end of last season’s campaign earned MSK the title which culminated in talismanic midfielder and club Captain Robert Jez receiving the player of the year award.
At the time of writing Zilina are currently enjoying another terrific domestic campaign with six wins and five draws from their opening eleven league fixtures to top the Slovak First League. A paltry nine goals have been conceded en route to moving to the top of the standings and only FK Senica and FC Spartak Trnava look like challenging Zilina for this year’s title.
Coached by former Czechoslovakian international midfielder Paval Hapal, Zilina regularly utilise a 4-4-2 formation with veteran striker Tomas Oravec (the club’s top scorer in UEFA competitions with 6 goals) and Gambian international Momodou Cessay forming an effective partnership up front. Ceesay was on the books of Chelsea for a time before moving to Grasshoppers of Zurich and has proven an inspired signing by Hapal.
Zilina’s midfield is anchored by the youthful Benin international Babatounde Bello and club veteran Robert Jez (over 150 club appearances) with 6ft 5 inch centre back Jozef Piacek the pivotal member of a well organised back four. The Slovakian under-21 international Martin Dubravka is established as the first choice goalkeeper.
MSK began their 2010/11 Champions League odyssey with a two-legged victory over Maltese outfit Birkirkara FC, winning 1 – 0 away and then 3 – 0 at home to progress to the third qualifying round. PFC Litex Lovech from Bulgaria were easily defeated 4 – 1 on aggregate to setup a mouth-watering clash with Sparta Parague from the Czech Republic.
The Slovakian Champions travelled to Prague on the 17th of August and recorded a magnificent 2 – 0 victory in the opening leg thanks to goals from strikers Oravec and Ceesay. The return leg in Zilina proved a formality when Momodou Ceesay’s acrobatic volley proving enough to earn MSK a 1 -0 win on the night and qualification for the group stages of the Champions League (only the third Slovakian club to do so).
Zilina were handed the toughest of draws alongside Chelsea (Eng), Spartak Moscow (Russ) and Olympic Marseille (Fra) in Group F of the Champions League and have struggled to make an impact following back to back defeats. A 4 – 1 defeat at home to Chelsea proved a real baptism of fire for the Slovakians and the result could have been a lot worse but for the Premier League Champions profligacy in front of goal. A 3 – 0 defeat away to Spartak Moscow on Matchday 2 saw MSK outclassed from early on with the Republic of Ireland international Aiden McGeady in impressive form for the Muscovites.
MSK Zilina represents the emerging face of Slovakian domestic football and their experiences in the group stages of this season’s Champions League will stand to them in the coming years. Slovakia has established itself on the international stage but only time will tell if MSK Zilina can make the next step forward in European club competition.