Debutants Slovakia need to keep up qualifying form

BRATISLAVA (Reuters) - If World Cup debutants Slovakia can repeat their fine qualifying form in South Africa, they should have a fair chance of reaching the knockout round.

Playing with skill, determination and flair, Slovakia won a qualifying group featuring more established sides such as neighbors Czech Republic and Poland to book their place in the finals and spark raucous celebrations in Bratislava.

A talented generation of players, sharpened up in Europe's big leagues, have given Slovakia hopes of causing an upset or two in their first major tournament as an independent nation.

Midfielder Marek Hamsik, a consistent scorer at Serie A side Napoli, has pace and talent while winger Stanislav Sestak, who plays for Bochum in the Bundesliga, led the way in qualifying with six goals and is finally fulfilling his potential in the national side.

Solid Liverpool center-back Martin Skrtel should be the third pillar of the side, who face champions Italy, Paraguay and New Zealand in Group F.

"It's not an easy group but it's not the hardest," Skrtel told Reuters in a recent interview. "It's a big thing that we qualified; now I think we can do something good."

Slovakia's only claim on a World Cup past is as part of the former Czechoslovakia, who reached the final in 1934 and again in 1962.

The Czechs have enjoyed more success since they parted company with the Slovaks on January 1, 1993 and they reached the Euro 1996 final.

The Slovakians have captured the bragging rights now though, after getting a win and a draw against the Czech Republic in the qualifiers.

Having never been tested in a major tournament where consistency and fitness in a short timespan is the key, the Slovakians will be something of an unknown quantity in South Africa.

(Writing by Zoran Milosavljevic in Belgrade; Editing by Clare Fallon)