Following a hard-fought draw against Greece on Wednesday night, the Slovenian men’s football team preserved their unbeaten run in this season’s UEFA Nations League to secure progression into League B of the next edition.
Slovenia produced a poor performance in the inaugural edition of the tournament two years ago, going winless with three draws and three losses in their six group games as they ended bottom of Group C3 behind Norway, Bulgaria and Cyprus.
Due a change in format of the tournament, Slovenia remained in League C in this year’s competition, lining up alongside Greece, Moldova and Kosovo this time around, with the winner of the group securing promotion to League B for the 2022/23 Nations League.
Still smarting over their failed European Championship qualification bid, Slovenia kicked off their Nations League campaign with a goalless draw at home to Greece in September, followed by a narrow 1-0 victory over Moldova three days later.
A 1-0 win over Kosovo and comfortable 4-0 victory over Moldova in October meant the Slovenians led the group heading into the final two fixtures, yet were just two points ahead of equally unbeaten Greece.
After warming up with an uninspiring goalless draw with Azerbaijan in a friendly played at Stožice Stadium last week, Slovenia found themselves a goal down to Kosovo in their penultimate Nations League encounter played on Sunday in Ljubljana, having started the game without influential captain and star goalkeeper Jan Oblak due to injury.
The home side rallied though, drawing level four minutes after conceding as Jasmin Kurtić tapped home his first international goal in over eight years. The game looked to be heading for a draw as the scoreline remained 1-1 at the 90 minute mark, yet draw unfolded in injury time after Kosovo’s Fidan Aliti handled the ball in the box, with Josip Iličić keeping his cool to convert from the spot to hand Slovenia a vital three points.
Greece’s victory over Moldova meant it was all to play for in Athens – a draw or victory for Slovenia guaranteed promotion, but a loss to the hosts meant the Greeks would leapfrog their opponents and win the group.
Oblak was back for the visitors, and he proved instrumental as Slovenia withstood a barrage of attacks from the home side, who had 16 attempts on goal the entire match opposed to Slovenia’s six, enjoying 61% ball possession as the searched for a way through. It was not to be, however, as the Slovenian defence stood firm, shutting out the Greeks as the game ended 0-0, with Slovenia ending as group winners and thus earning promotion to League B in the 2022/23 Nations League competition.
"It's a big reward for the guys who did a good job, they managed to make a team,” said Slovenia’s head coach Matjaž Kek, back in his second spell after leading the national team in their second World Cup campaign in South African 2010. “As a selector, I'm glad we laid the foundation, we introduced some new faces, so congratulations to the team and everyone in the relationship who are in these crazy sometimes we did a great job in organizing all this.
"We reminded Slovenia that football is still here. This is a respectable result, but it is not worth flying. I am satisfied, although it is probably the most difficult month in my coaching career for me.”
Ending the competition with four wins and two draws, Slovenia are now unbeaten in eight matches since their 3-2 Euro 2020 qualifying loss to Poland last year, and sit 62nd in the latest FIFA rankings.