LILLE, France: Slovakia coach Jan Kozak believes Europe’s best teams should be watching Marek Hamsik after the Napoli midfielder led his country to a 2-1 win over Russia on Wednesday (Thursday in Manila).
It was a historic day for Slovakia in Lille as they claimed their first European Championship finals win since the break-up of Czechoslovakia to boost their hopes of qualifying from Group B at Euro 2016.
Hamsik, 28, was the instigator with a superb pass on his left foot to set up Vladimir Weiss for the opener in the 32nd minute. He then scored a brilliant second with his right foot on the stroke of half-time before Denis Glushakov pulled one back in vain late on for Russia.
“Napoli has become too small for him. I think he is ready to play for a really big club,” declared Kozak after seeing his team bounce back from a 2-1 loss to Wales in their opener last Saturday in Bordeaux.
“He has been performing very well for Slovakia and is one of the leaders of the team together with Martin Skrtel. His performance today was really superb.”
Hamsik’s decisive goal followed a quickly taken corner by Weiss. With the Russian defense slow to react, the former Brescia playmaker, who has been in Italy since the age of 17, collected the ball and curled a stunning shot in off the far post.
It was arguably the best goal yet at the tournament and it left Russia with too much to do, even if substitute Glushakov’s late strike set up a grandstand finale.
England a ‘great challenge’
“I am very proud and perhaps this has opened up the gates to the second round—we’ll see. I did well and am very proud that I managed to score such a goal—it was brilliant,” said Hamsik, who despite Kozak’s comments indicated he is happy at Napoli, runners-up to Juventus in last season’s Serie A.
“I am pleased with what I have achieved so far although I am sure there is room for improvement. We will see where my future lies — hopefully it will still be in Naples but for now I am just enjoying the tournament.”
Group rivals England and Wales meet in Lens on Thursday before Slovakia face the English in their final group game in Saint-Etienne next Monday.
A draw in that match should be enough to take Kozak’s side through to the last 16 and with Hamsik on form they can be hope to upset their supposedly more illustrious opponents.
“I hope he will cause problems to England because he showed his quality today and showed how important he is for our team,” said center back and captain Skrtel, of Liverpool.
Kozak, whose team famously defeated Spain during qualifying, added: “They have lots of good quality players and are very strong but we have our quality as well and will try to be a decent opponent to England.
“For us it is a great challenge. We are not the favorites but the favourites do not always win in football.”
In contrast, Russia has endured a troubled campaign and with just one point from two games could be facing a group-stage exit from the tournament.
After snatching a 1-1 draw against England in Marseille at the weekend on a night overshadowed by crowd trouble, Leonid Slutsky’s side threatened a couple of times early on but had no real answer to Hamsik’s brilliance.
“The situation in the group is very complex. Every team will have a chance of qualifying going into the final round of games,” insisted Slutsky ahead of next Monday’s meeting with the Welsh in Toulouse.