Monday, November 29, 1999

US favourites against Slovenia

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Johannesburg, June 17 -- The United States head into Friday's Group C encounter against Slovenia at Ellis Park in Johannesburg hoping to live up to the unusual tag of being favourites to progress to the knockout stages of a World Cup. American football has come a long way over the last decade, as evidenced by Bob Bradley's side's run to the final of last year's Confederations Cup in South Africa, and more recently in the deserved opening match draw against group favourites England. However, US fans would be foolish to underestimate a Slovenia team that tops the group after an opening 1-0 win against Algeria and which disposed off Russia to qualify for South Africa. Former Maribor coach Matjaz Kek has instilled a never-say-die spirit in his players since taking over the helm of the national team in 2007 and the 48-year-old says his team will keep its feet on the ground after Slovenia registered its first finals win at the fourth attempt. Slovenia lost all three matches in their only previous finals appearance in 2002, but captain Robert Koren's second-half strike against the Algerians has now made qualification to the knockout stages a real possibility. "Qualification is our goal," said Kek, who was full of praise for his side after their victory over the Desert Foxes in Polokwane last Sunday. "We have a new challenge and a new desire to win." Koren echoed his coach's comments, saying Slovenia's objective was "to get to the knockout stages". Bradley is not expected to tinker too much with the team that performed so well against England in Rustenburg although he could start Jose Torres in place of Ricardo Clark. The 52-year-old is aware that a draw wouldn't spell the end of his side's chances of qualifying. But he has described the tie as a game that is "close to a must win, but it's 100 per cent a game that you can't lose". Even against the limited Algerians, Slovenia played a highly defensive game, relying mostly on counterattacking opportunities, a ploy the Eastern Europeans are likely to repeat against the more accomplished Americans.US goalkeeper Tim Howard, meanwhile, may need painkillers ahead of the match as he still recovers from rib injury sustained in a clash with England's Emile Heskey.

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