Euro 2016 Spotlight:Slovakia

Two of the most impressive results gained by any team in Euro 2016 qualifying were won in succession by Slovakia. They won their opening qualifying match away to Ukraine, then defeated Spain at home in their next game. It was the first time Spain had been defeated in a qualifying match since October 2006. Slovakia didn't finish qualifying undefeated, but they did do well, comfortably holding off Ukraine to make the finals without having to go through a playoff. They're also undefeated in friendlies since qualifying ended, recently defeating Germany in Augsburg.

Besides the good qualifying run and impressive form on their way into the tournament, other elements are there for Slovakia to become a surprise contender.

Their star, Marek Hamšík, is in the prime of his career and coming off an excellent season with Napoli. He stalled in previous years under Rafa Benitez, but became Napoli's key player again under new manager Maurizio Sarri and enjoyed one of his best seasons in a Partenopei shirt. He'll play a similar advanced playmaker role for Slovakia as he does for his club, so he won't have a big adjustment to make like some of the other dark horse teams whose star players play different roles for club and country.

Slovakia's backline is loaded with experienced pros, led by captain and longtime Liverpool center back Martin Škrtel. He'll be joined in defense by three other players who are 29 or older and have extensive experience playing in top European leagues. And they'll be shielded by Juraj Kucka, who is coming off a solid debut season for AC Milan.

Lacking a star striker, Slovakia has started to experiment with playing attacking midfielder Ondrej Duda up top as a false nine, dropping back into midfield and opening up space for both Hamšík and their wingers to run into. Early results look good — Duda assisted Hamšík for an absolute screamer of a goal in that Germany friendly. Duda's likely to be more of a creator than a scorer, and if that means Hamšík is getting quality shots, that will suit Slovakia just fine.

Because even though Slovakia has decent depth and doesn't have any serious weak spots, they are still dependent on Hamšík to be involved in their goals. Slovakia isn't likely to score on moves where he's not scoring, assisting or drawing two defenders away from the people who are getting in the box.

Between qualifying, Slovakia's friendlies since and his club form, there's every reason to believe Hamšík can make a constant impact. Additionally, Slovakia have received the benefit of being drawn into arguably the weakest group in the tournament. Russia limped through qualifying, Wales are pinning all of their hopes on Gareth Bale not being tired after winning the Champions League, and England are England.

While all three of those teams potentially have the defensive midfielders to slow Hamšík down, it's not a certainty. Joe Ledley is in the Wales team, but coming off an injury. He might not be fit to start, and might not be 100 percent even if he does get into the lineup. It's not clear yet if Roy Hodgson is committed to starting Eric Dier for England or if he thinks he can get away with not playing a real defensive midfielder. Russia's midfielders are well past their primes, so they just fast-tracked citizenship for Roman Neustädter, who has never played a competitive game with his newly adopted country. These teams all have the ability to slow down Hamšík, but they also potentially lack the right personnel to slow him down.

If you're looking for a dark horse to hitch your wagon to and look smart to your friends in two weeks, you can do a lot worse than Slovakia. They've got experience, form, a legitimate star player and a group ready to get taken by surprise.

Schedule & Results

Saturday, Jun. 11
Wednesday, Jun. 15
Monday, Jun. 20
Sunday, Jun. 26