Ahead of England's must-win clash on Wednesday, skysports.com looks at Slovenia's key men.
Last Updated: 22/06/10 5:24pm
Matjaz Kek's side currently occupy top spot in Group C and will be out to spring an upset by reaching the last 16. Few gave them much hope before the tournament began, but a 1-0 win over Algeria and a 2-2 draw with the United States have left them in pole position. Just a point against England in midweek would be enough to see them through and send the Three Lions home with their tail between their legs. Despite struggling so far England will enter the game as strong favourites, but Slovenia can boast a number of players who could cause them problems.
As captain and all-round string puller, midfielder Koren is perhaps the most respected player both inside and outside of the Slovenia squad. Arriving at West Brom in 2007, where he linked up with compatriot Bostjan Cesar, Koren has become an established enforcer with an eye for goal. Despite struggling with a hernia problem early in the 2009/10 campaign, the 29-year-old played a big part in securing the Baggies a return to the Premier League as Championship runners-up. However, he has not been offered a new contract by West Brom following the club's promotion and is hoping to put himself in the shop window this summer. A winning goal in Slovenia's opening 1-0 victory over Algeria will have aided his cause, helping to ignite interest. The 29-year-old will stand over set-pieces for Slovenia and has the ability with a dead-ball to give England a headache.
Strike ace Ljubijankic is already up and running in front of goal, having notched against USA, and will be looking to add to that tally. He has also found the target against England before, in a 2-1 friendly defeat at Wembley in September 2009. Now set to go head-to-head against Fabio Capello's men again, Ljubijankic will relish the chance of pitting his wits against John Terry and co. Prolific with his first club Domzale, the 26-year-old was voted Slovenia's player of the year by leading journalists in his homeland in 2007. Not without his flaws, Ljubijankic does not anticipate the game overly well and isn't really influential within the team. On the other hand, his physical strength and brave nature are a plus for Slovenia when he is on the field. Ljubijankic scored twice en route to South Africa, bagging goals against Northern Ireland and San Marino in Group 3.
While Koren is the creative spark of Kek's team, Novakovic is the target man he will look for to put the ball in the back of the net. Relatively unknown outside of his homeland and Germany, where he has become a fans' favourite at current club Cologne, the 6ft 4in striker is every bit as important to Slovenia as Koren. Novakovic scored five crucial goals en route to South Africa and is a player with such immaculate ball control he has been likened to superstars Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Dimitar Berbatov. At 30, however, Novakovic is unlikely to reach the heights of the aforementioned duo, but he remains Slovenia's main goal threat while his ability to hold up the play with his back to goal can create openings for those around him. Known as 'Miso' to the Slovenian faithful, some would argue that he is the first name on their team-sheet ahead of Koren, but seeing the two penned in from the start gives even the most pessimistic Slovenian some optimism. He has the best goal return of any player within the Slovenia squad, with 16 international strikes to his name, but has found the going tough in South Africa so far and is yet to get off the mark.
Arguably Slovenia's most impressive performer at the tournament, Birsa has caught the eye with his no-nonsense approach. Although not the most prolific forward in Kek's ranks, he is an integral part of the starting XI. The Auxerre frontman had just two international goals to his name heading into the World Cup, but broke the deadlock against America and gave the Algeria defence a tough time in Slovenia's opening game. At 23, Slovenians still hold high hopes of him having a club career at a high level and have done so since he became the youngest player to wear their country's shirt as an 18-year-old. He may not have scaled the heights they had hoped for at international level as yet, but is growing into his role and is gaining in confidence with each passing game.
Larissa anchorman Radosavljevic is set to partner Robert Koren at the heart of Slovenia's midfield. The 30-year-old, who featured in seven of his country's qualifiers, has been an international performer since 2002 and his presence allows Koren to operate in a free role, which is key to Slovenia's creativity. Released by Tom Tomsk and snapped up by Greek Super League side Larissa in January, Radosavljevic is not the classiest of midfielders but his ability to break up the play of opponents has proved vital for his country. Despite not being renowned for his heading ability, Radosavljevic has also filled in at centre-half in the past and his versatility makes him a more than useful addition to the squad. He has played an understated role in each of Slovenia's matches so far, keeping things ticking over in the middle of the park.
The man charged with the task of keeping England at bay will be Udinese shot-stopper Handanovic. The 25-year-old is Slovenia's undisputed No.1 and, with more than 100 Serie A appearances to his name, is one of the more high-profile players in the national squad. At 6ft 4ins, Handanovic is big, brave, but also boisterous, picking up four yellow cards for club and country this season alone. But with 38 caps to his name, having broken into the international set-up as a 19-year-old, the former Lazio loanee brings valuable experience. Too young to feature in Slovenia's last World Cup appearance in 2002, Handanovic has been determined to make the most of his opportunity this time around. He has performed admirably in the tournament so far, and could not be blamed for either of the goals he conceded against the United States. Handanovic is not without his flaws, however, with a reluctance to venture outside of his penalty area his main cause for concern. Whereas many top keepers are happy to play the 'sweeper' role of racing off their line to boot the ball into touch in a one-on-one situation, Handanovic prefers to loiter in his own area, forcing the Slovenia centre-backs into a deep position to cover the gap.