STA, 24 March 2021 - The Slovenian men's football team will open the qualifiers for the 2022 FIFA World Cup against Croatia, the runners-up from the previous World Cup, in Ljubljana's Stožice Stadium on Wednesday. Two more games will follow in a one-week span, with Slovenia facing Russia on Saturday and Cyprus on 30 March, both on the road.
Slovenia are coming off a good performance in the UEFA Nations League, but the players are aware that the qualifiers for the tournament in Qatar require are on a different level, that they need to be even more focused and utilise every chance.
In addition to the three teams Slovenia are facing in the seven-day span, also featured in Slovenia's Group H are Malta and Slovakia, with the qualifiers scheduled through mid-November, when Slovenia will host Cyprus to wrap up the campaign.
Only the top team in the group will earn a direct ticket to next year's World Cup, and the second-place team will have to play in the additional round. Slovenia will be looking to qualify to what would be their only third World Cup ever.
The first opponents are Croatia, the runners-up from the 2018 World Cup in Russia, and the Slovenian players hopes they would continue to display good defence from the recent matches.
"This must be our DNA. We have to give it our best when we are without the ball, also be fully focused with the ball. We have to give as few opportunities as possible to our opponents, as these are players from top clubs," said midfielder Jasmin Kurtič.
Defender Jure Balkovec said as the team gathered for the training camp in Ljubljana that "it is hard to tell at the moment what result would be satisfactory for us. The group is very interesting, everybody can beat everybody."
As for Croatia, he said that it would be a match of rival neighbours in which it was hard to determine a favourite. "But we will let them have the role of a favourite, and we will give our best to beat them," he added.
Defender Miha Blažič said that the schedule was tough, but everybody was happy that the qualifiers were starting, with the wish being that Slovenia continued with the good play shown in the UEFA Nations League, in which it had advanced.
Presenting the roster, head coach Matjaž Kek said that the match with Croatia would be a display of great rivalry. "We have a great desire, motive to start the qualifiers successfully, but we are aware who is coming to Ljubljana."
* Slovenia's roster for the March slot of the World Cup qualifiers:
- goalkeepers: Jan Oblak (Atletico Madrid), Vid Belec (Salernitana), Žiga Frelih (Olimpija);
- defenders: Bojan Jokić (Ufa), Miha Mevlja (Sochi), Petar Stojanović (Dinamo Zagreb), Nejc Skubic (Konyaspor), Jure Balkovec (Karagumruk), Miha Blažič (Ferencvaros), Kenan Bajrić (Slovan Bratislava), Mario Jurčević (Osijek);
- midfielders: Jasmin Kurtić (Parma), Miha Zajc (Genoa), Jaka Bijol (Hannover), Domen Črnigoj (Venezia), Amedej Vetrih (Gaziantep), Sandi Lovrić (Lugano), Nino Kouter (Mura), Jon Gorenc Stanković (Sturm Graz);
- forwards: Josip Iličić (Atalanta), Andraž Šporar (Braga), Damjan Bohar (Osijek), Haris Vučkić (Real Zaragoza), Luka Zahović (Pogon Szczecin), Blaž Kramer (Zürich).