Slovakia keep their nerve
Wednesday, 18 August 2004
By Stanislav Hlavácek
 Slovakia overcame an early scare to ensure their 2006 FIFA World Cup qualifying Group 3 campaign got off to a victorious start against Luxembourg.
 The visitors had not won any of their previous 55 away World Cup fixtures, and indeed had drawn just one of those, but a landmark victory was on the cards when their sole professional, Jeff Strasser of VfL Borussia Mönchengladbach, rose above Stanislav Varga to head in Sebastien Rémy's free-kick.
 That goal forced Slovakia on to the offensive in search of an equaliser and before the half-hour mark Szilard Nemeth's clever ball found Robert Vittek, who made no mistake. The game was still level at half-time, but after the break Slovakia finally found their form.
 Vittek's 1. FC Nürnberg club-mate went close two minutes into the second period, and seconds later winger Vratislav Greško put Slovakia into the lead from close range. Luxembourg did not lose heart, and their goalkeeper brilliantly denied the always-dangerous Vittek with a fine save 13 minutes from time. In the final seconds, however, Slovakian substitute Igor Demo - Strasser's colleague at Mönchengladbach - struck the clincher.
 The result gives Slovakia the early lead in a group where Estonia also beat Liechtenstein 2-1. Slovakia coach Dušan Galis said: "It is not easy to play games where you are expected to win automatically. The early goal was a surprise to our players, they were nervous, but we were lucky to equalise before the break. There were many chances in the second half, but we wasted most of them. However, the first three points are vital."
 His opposite number Allan Simonsen conceded: "Slovakia deserved to win and proved they are a strong team. It was a hard game for us, but I have to thank my players for their performance. The difference between amateurs and professionals was clear."
 Slovakia face a tough trip to Russia on 4 September, when Luxembourg visit Estonia. Four days later Luxembourg meet Latvia.