We're still in the early stages of the qualifying campaign for the 2016 European Championships, but there's already been a number of surprising results and shocking upsets. And wouldn't you know, one Napoli star has been at the heart of two of them.
Marek Hamsik and Slovakia played host to Spain on Thursday, hoping to ride the momentum of their shock win against Ukraine in Kiev to a positive result against the fallen giants that Spain have become in recent months. Both sides entered the day as the only two in their group to have won in their first qualifying round, with Spain having taken down Macedonia last month by a 5-1 margin.
True to the form that got Spain booted from the World Cup in the group stage, Slovakia came out with all the momentum early, with Spain looking flat and sluggish. Hamsik was the key man for his country, serving as the focus and lynchpin of the attack. Vicente Del Bosque tried man-marking Hamsik with Sergio Busquets, but the Barcelona man couldn't handle Hamsik at all. Busquets was left scratching his head when Hamsik played a brilliant pass to spring Vladimir Weiss, setting up the winger with all the time and space he needed to find Juraj Kucka racing at goal from midfield to put Slovakia up 1-0 in the seventeenth minute.
Things would continue much like this for much of the match: Spain proving easy to disrupt and sorely lacking in direct threats (betcha wish you had Jose Callejon now, eh Del Bosque?), and Slovakia applying the pressure on counters. Spain would finally manage to start looking dangerous in the second half, taking off Napoli defender Raul Albiol in favor of a winger in Pedro just before the hour mark, sliding Busquets back in to defense and taking a much more aggressive stance. That formation started giving Slovakia a lot more trouble, and in the 82nd minute, another sub, Paco Alcacer, found space in front of goal and equalized for Spain.
But then, inexplicably... Spain went flat again. After tormenting Slovakia for much of the half, once the scoreline was level it was almost as if the Spaniards decided that was good enough and that they'd be content with a road draw. Slovakia wasn't content, though, and started pushing hard for a winner, one that they found in the 90th minute when Hamsik again rose to the occasion.
Hamsik and Michal Duris had been playing some interesting combinations throughout the half after Duris came on in place of Weiss, and finally one worked like a charm. Hamsik put in a lovely ball over the top down the flank to spring Duris behind Jordi Alba, and thanks to Hamsik continuing his run at goal, Busquets couldn't rotate over to close Duris down. Hamsik wasn't the man Duris was looking for, though, and his pass to Miroslav Stoch was note-perfect, going through the space that Busquets stepped out of to mark Hamsik and in perfect position for Stoch to put in the back of the net past a flailing Iker Casillas.
It was a well-earned win for Slovakia, putting them on top of their qualification group with a match against Belarus on tap early next week to see if they can snag nine points in their first three matches. Not only is it wonderful to see Marek Hamsik continuing his rapidly-improving form of late, but to see it play so vitally in a massive win for his country is truly something special.
As for Spain, the questions and accusations are coming in massive waves right now. The calls for Del Bosque to be sacked are as loud as can be, and even if he stays, a lot is going to have to change for Spain to get out of this malaise. As for Albiol, he had some interesting things to say after the match.
Another Napoli star, Gokhan Inler, was in action as well, leading Switzerland on the road against Slovenia. Things did not go especially well, with Inler looking scattered and Switzerland looking painfully flat. What few chances Switzerland were able to create were left wanting, as Slovenia played a tight, controlled game and the Swiss struggled to get close enough to goal to make things easier on themselves.
Eventually, Slovenia started looking more threatening on the counter, leading to some desperate moments for the Swiss. That lead to a late penalty for the hosts, and a loss for a shell-shocked Switezerland side who now have zero points through their first two qualifiers after falling 2-0 to England at home last month.
A strip to San Marino next week should yield points, but the questions are loud in Switzerland right now, especially those asking if Inler is the right man for his nation's midfield. Of course, given that Valon Behrami had a far worse match, maybe those questions should be aimed elsewhere, but that doesn't change that things aren't looking too hot for the land of banks, watches, and chocolate right now.