Great Reputations: Slovan Bratislava 1969 – just a touch of irony

IN the late summer of 1968, Russian troops rolled into Czechoslovakia in response to the so-called “Prague Spring” that took place between January and August of that year. The Cold War was raging and the sight of tanks in the picturesque capital city raised fears that the world was on the brink of a global conflict. From a football perspective, the invasion prompted Eastern Bloc countries to withdraw their clubs from UEFA competitions after the governing body ensured they met each other in the first round draws in order to avoid any awkward fixtures.

In the European Cup, this meant clubs like Dynamo Kyiv, Red Star Belgrade and Levski Sofia withdrew, while in the European Cup-Winners’ Cup, Union Berlin, Gorńik Zabrze and Dynamo Moscow, among others, refused to enter. Ironically, Czech clubs – Spartak Trnava in the European Cup and Slovan Bratislava in the Cup-Winners’ Cup, both took part.

Eastern bloc clubs were difficult opponents in European competition, but only in the Inter-Cities Fairs’ Cup had an eastern European club won a trophy. In 1968-69, Slovan Bratislava emerged triumphant in the Cup-Winners’ Cup, surprise winners in a still relatively strong field of clubs.

Momentum

Slovan had won the Czechoslovakian Cup in 1967-68, beating Dukla Prague over two legs. They had also finished runners-up to rivals Spartak Trnava in the league, finishing five points behind the champions. They were coached by Michal Vičan, an advocate of tight defending and fast, simple football that wore-down Slovan’s opponents. The 1967-68 season was the second in a three-year run in which Slovan were runners-up in the Czechoslovak First League – the club had last been champions in 1955, but they were one of the most popular teams with crowds averaging over 15,000 at the Tehelné pole stadium.

Slovan’s team included more than half a dozen players who would be included in the Czechoslavakia squad for the 1970 World Cup. It was a mix of youth and experience, including the giant highly respected defender Alexander Horváth who captained his country in Mexico. Generally, the quality of Czech squad was underrated, but their national team had disposed of Hungary and Portugal in the qualifying group for 1970.

Similarly, very few people expected Slovan to be in with a chance of winning the Cup-Winners’ Cup. The British contenders, West Bromwich Albion and Dunfermline Athletic were ahead of them as possible winners and there was Barcelona, Köln, Porto and Torino also in the pack. Slovan’s first opponents were Yugoslavian side FK Bor, who had qualified for the competition by default after losing to double winners Red Star Belgrade 7-0 in the cup final. Bor, who won promotion to the Yugoslav first league in 1968, were beaten 3-0 in Bratislava and had Slovan very worried in the second leg, winning 2-0.

Into the second round, Slovan pulled off an resounding 4-1 aggregate victory against a Porto side that would push Benfica to the limit in Portugal in 1968-69. Slovan lost the first leg in Porto 1-0, but they bounced back in style, winning 4-0 with the Čapkovič twins, Ján and Jozef, on the scoresheet.

The quarter-finals paired Slovan with Torino, a hard task as the Italians were virtually unbeatable at home. But Slovan won 1-0 thanks to a goal from midfielder Karol Jokl and the second leg saw them win 2-1 in front of almost 21,000 people at Tehelné pole.

The last four included Scottish side Dunfermline, Barcelona and Köln. When the names came out of the hat. Both Dunfermline manager George Farm and Slovan’s Michel Vičan must have breathed a sigh of relief. The Scots had unexpectedly beaten West Bromwich Albion in the last eight and were arguably the third best side in Scotland after the Glasgow “old firm”. They also rarely lost at East End Park, their home ground, where the first leg took place.

Impressive

Slovan were impressive in every department and it was a surprise when Jim Fraser gave Dunfermline the lead just before half-time. Patiently, Slovan took control and equalised five minutes from time through Ján Čapkovič, who later hit the crossbar as the visitors went in search of a winner. A 1-1 draw wasn’t a good result for Farm’s team. And so it proved, for Slovan won 1-0 in Bratislava, Ján Čapkovič scoring again after Ladislav Móder’s shot was parried by goalkeeper Willie Duff.

Barcelona awaited the winners, with the game scheduled for Basel’s St. Jakob-Stadion on May 21. They were overwhelming favourites, but this was not a classic Barca line-up and they hadn’t won the Spanish league title since 1960. They won the Spanish Cup in 1968 by beating Real Madrid 1-0 but in 1968-69, they went out of the competition cheaply and were pushed into third place in the league by Real and Las Palmas. Barcelona were going through a crisis of confidence in the late 1960s and losing to Slovan would make matters worse.

It was a memorable evening in Basel for Czechoslovakian football. Vičan’s team went for Barcelona from the start and after just two minutes, 30 year-old striker L’udovít Cvetler, a member of Czechoslavakia’s Olympic silver medallists, gave them the lead, a tame finish after the Barca defence had failed to clear the ball. Barca had problems dealing with Slovan’s direct runs into the area throughout the game.

Barca levelled after 16 minutes when José Antonio Zaldúa netted from close range as the ball was headed back across the penalty box. But Slovan kept attacking and another run through the middle ended with Vladimír Hrivnák shooting past Barca keeper Sadurní after 29 minutes. In the 42nd minute, it became 3-1 when Ján Čapkovič found himself in a one-on-one situation and he calmly sent his shot round the keeper. Barca were stunned, but pulled one back with Carles Rexach, a future acolyte of Johan Cruyff, scored direct from a corner – Slovan keeper Aleksander Vencel claimed he had been deceived by the floodlights – seven minutes into the second half.

Slovan held on to win 3-2, creating a landmark achievement for Czechoslovakian football. Bizarrely, Slovan captain Horváth received the trophy pitch-side without his shirt, suggesting the celebrations had already started. The city of Bratislava enjoyed the victory and Slovan continued their success with a league title win in 1970 and were narrowly denied a double when they lost the cup final on penalties. Halcyon days on the banks of the Danube.

@GameofthePeople

Photos: PA

GOTP Notepad: United’s path to the last 16

Photo: Guts Gaming (CC BY 2.0)

MANCHESTER UNITED are arguably in the best place they’ve been since the retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson. The instability that has characterised the club since his departure would appear to be over and in Jose Mourinho, they have the ideal “transactional” manager who might not be aligned to the club’s past and traditions, but he’s certainly moved the needle since his arrival.

Let’s be clear, though, Mourinho will not be a long-term appointment and if history is anything to go by, this current season will be the peak of his time with the club. Mourinho is in season two at Old Trafford, which means United will be aiming for the Premier title, something they have not won for four seasons.

Since he was manager of Porto, Mourinho has won the league title at every club he has managed in his second season: Porto 2002-03, Chelsea 2005-06, Inter Milan 2009-10, Real Madrid 2011-12 and Chelsea again in 2014-15.

Mourinho will also be expecting a decent UEFA Champions League run, the competition he benchmarks his efforts against, not the Europa League that United won in 2016-17. The first hurdles are now clear – Benfica, CSKA Moscow and Basel. United should be good enough to come through this group.

But they’re up against teams that know how to win titles – Basel have stood astride Swiss football for years, CSKA Moscow have not finished outside the top two in Russia since 2009 and Benfica have lifted 36 Portuguese league titles.

United have started the season well, with two 4-0 victories, which naturally raises expectations that this could be the year they return to the summit of English football.

Benfica: Have never won at Old Trafford. Provided the opposition when United won their first European honour – 1968, the 50th anniversary of which is approaching. Record this season: 100% after three games, veteran Brazilian forward Jonas in fine form.

CSKA Moscow: United have played four, won two, drawn two against the former army club. Record this season: Have lost two of their seven league games, including clumsy home defeats. Currently fourth in the table.

Basel: Unbeaten in two visits to Old Trafford. Perpetual Swiss champions. Record this season: Started shakily, with a 0-2 defeat at Young Boys, who could be a real threat to Basel’s monopoly this season. New signing Ricky van Wolfswinkel is among the goals in his debut season.

Liverpool get a reminder they are no longer “royalty”

KIPPERSIn their pomp, Liverpool would have torn a team from Basel apart. Even a decade ago, the Swiss should not have posed a problem. Indeed, even today, you wouldn’t rank Basel that highly – on paper, that is. But their record deserves some examination, while Liverpool’s demands some explanation.

Liverpool fans keep carrying around banners claiming their club is “European royalty” and lifting placards with five gleaming trophies evidencing the club’s heritage, but it counts for nothing anymore – football, like most aspects of life, is about the here and now. Liverpool have long been cast as also-rans, a story of sad decline and an inability to keep pace with the true big guns of modern European football: Real, Barca, Chelsea (yes, Chelsea – history has been acquired) and Bayern. Liverpool, like the Italian giants of the past, are no longer in the same bracket.

Only one English team won its Champions League group. Arsenal laboured at first but came through in second place, City made absolute heavy weather of their group and Liverpool showed they are just not Business Class when it comes to flying around the continent. Steven Gerrard knew it, displayed it, agonized over it, and the result could be that Anfield’s favourite son will decide that another contract might be too painful to consider. Given he’s done his shift, he won’t get death threats next time he decides to call it a day.

But where does this leave Brendan Rodgers? I would say it could be the beginning of the end for a man who was being canonised only a few months ago. Liverpool have proved that they were a one man band relying on a striker with a predilection for human flesh. Rodgers spent heavily in the summer to, supposedly, strengthen a team that just fell short in the title race in 2013-14. But he’s bought more kippers than a Billingsgate fishmonger.

Rodgers opted to deepen his squad instead of bringing a trophy signing to the club. With Luis Suarez’s departure, Liverpool netted £75m that was largely channeled into a war chest for the manager. He spent £116m, almost £70m of which was thrown Southampton’s way as he decimated their squad: Adam Lallana, Rickie Lambert and Devran Lovren all defected to Anfield. Lambert for Saurez was always going to look like folly, so in desperation, Mario Balotelli arrived for £ 16m. There was a reason why the wayward and ill-disciplined Sicilian was playing back in Serie A, and Liverpool are now aware of it – it was a gamble that has yet to pay off. Of the eight players signed in the close season, only Lovren and Lambert started against Basel. Moreno and Markovic came on as substitutes. This implies Rodgers is realising he has not spent wisely.

There’s also a growing feeling that Liverpool’s doomed flourish was a fluke and really a case of opportunism, in much the way that Arsenal were “champions of Autumn”. Why? United were in decline, City were trying to assimilate a fresh batch of recruits, including a new manager, and Chelsea were trying to get their heads round Mourinho 2.0 and determine who they wanted to keep and who they would buy to recreate 2004. There was some transition going on – all three clubs were under new managership.

Arsenal had signed Ozil, so they were flying for a while and Liverpool seized the moment and started to build confidence. Once City had found their feet under Pellegrini, they finished the season well, and as champions. Chelsea were also coming up on the outside, establishing momentum that has continued into 2014-15. Arsenal realized that they were scarcely better off and as ever, suffered from injuries and some misfortune. Liverpool’s chance of the title was 2013-14 and they slipped on their behinds when it was within touching distance.

That may also be why they have been a shadow of the team that threatened to end the club’s 24-year wait for a title. Two games, Chelsea at home and Palace away, knocked the heart out of Liverpool and the hangover has just worn on. The loss of Suarez has been catastrophic and the new men have not delivered. Rodgers has a weaker team than a year ago and it’s almost been by design. He will undoubtedly pay for it with his job, either this season or early into 2015-16.

Can Rodgers turn it around? Much depends on how (or if) his summer signings integrate into the squad. It seems likely that Balotelli will not be at Liverpool come next summer, but with such an unpredictable talent, who knows? If Rodgers starts to get something out of his players, Liverpool could climb the table, but very little smart money will be placed on that outcome at present.

Rodgers could salvage something in both the Capital One Cup and Europa League. They’re not the Premier or the UEFA Champions League, but it may give Liverpool something to focus on in the months ahead.

But Liverpool’s failure and outlook has already started to yield problems among Rodgers’ squad. Raheem Sterling is a rare talent and at just 20, he could develop into a true great of the modern game. But Champions League exits have a habit of turning a young man’s head and there’s rumours Real Madrid have their eye on Sterling. Without him, and the Reds have had a £ 70,000 per week offer rejected by the youngster (!), Liverpool will be further weakened. They cannot really afford for that to happen, otherwise like many European kingdoms from the past, the old leaders may continue to sink further into exile.