Slovakia has nothing to lose

MORRIS DALLA COSTA, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 2:02 PM ET

PORT ELIZABETH -- It will be the ultimate case of a team with nothing to lose. No one expected Slovakia to be here in the first place.

Its opponents, though, will carry the burden of great expectations beyond this game and knowing it's been there before and failed.

The Netherlands, one of the World Cup tournament powers, will take on first-time entrant Slovakia on Monday in Durban in a knockout game.

Slovakia served up a stunning upset of defending world champion Italy, eliminating the Italians with a 3-2 victory.

The Dutch dominated their qualifying group without much trouble, cementing their reputation as a potential Cup winner.

Right now there is a group of five or six who are considered serious candidates for this championship.

It's certainly not the first time the Dutch have been in this situation, either as potential winners or of having started a tournament strongly.

The ending, though, is frustratingly the same. They flame out. The Dutch are brilliant one moment, then lose their edge the next. It's those moments when they are frighteningly ordinary that does them in.

But the Dutch aren't worried about what might happen down the road or what they may face should they exit the tournament unexpectedly.

"We made it clear at the start that we would be taking this tournament one challenge at a time, and now we will focus on Slovakia and Slovakia alone," said Dutch forward Arjen Robben.

Robben has only played a few minutes in this tournament. He was injured before the World Cup and has been brought along slowly.

If Robben, Robin van Persie and Wesley Sneijder could ever find a way to mesh, the Dutch would be explosive. They are explosive as it is and they've had some brilliant moments in this World Cup. When the Dutch are in synch, they are as good as any team on the planet.

With the elimination of Italy on their side of the draw, the Dutch look to have a nice ride into the quarterfinals. But Slovakia's win has sounded a warning siren to the Oranje.

Be careful.

"The favourites are the Dutch, like the Italians were, but you never know," said Slovakia manager Vladimir Weiss. "We'll see."

Slovakia's win stunned not only the Italians but also the Slovakians as well. For a small nation of five million, not much was expected of them and they didn't show much the first two games.

They were so unimpressive that the criticism they received in their landlocked nation by the press led Slovakia to shun their home country media. They didn't speak to them after their victory against Italy.

"It was not easy for us before the Italy match," Weiss said. "We were under intense pressure from our fans and media. I hope it will change the minds of the people, especially the Slovakian media. I don't know what they expected. It is our first World Cup."

They certainly made a loud announcement that they've arrived. Slovakia proved it can attack especially with Robert Vittek who scored twice in the deciding game. It has some defending issues and that could prove deadly against a skilled side like Holland.

But if Slovakia is hoping they can catch the Dutch by surprise, it won't happen. The Dutch believe they are ready, not only for Slovakia but also in this World Cup.

"We'd better be on our guard," Robben said. "People may say we will be the favorites. But we will certainly prepare very carefully. And we will be sharp for the game."

The Dutch need to be because everyone expects them to win and play well while doing so. That's the kind of pressure a team that's supposed to win faces.

morris.dallacosta@sunmedia.ca


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