Scouting report: Benjamin Sesko star quality means Slovenia are not sight-seeing at Euro 2024 in Germany | Football News

Matjaz Kek won just one cap for Slovenia as a player but during two spells as manager of the national team the former Maribor defender is having a far more significant presence.

Victory over Algeria at the 2010 World Cup is their only success at a major tournament and came under Kek, who embarked on his second stint in 2018 and has engineered the latest qualification.

Participation in Germany will mark only the fourth major international tournament for the former Yugoslav republic, who have been playing as an independent entity since 1992.

As well as Euro 2000, where they drew two games and lost the other in the group phase, Slovenia also qualified for the World Cup in 2002 and 2010 but have yet to go beyond the group stage.

This time round they will be hoping to make more of an impact in Group C where they meet qualifying rivals Denmark first in Stuttgart on June 16 and then Serbia and Euro 2020 runners-up England.

Slovenia made the most of a favourable draw in the qualifiers for Germany 2024

“We are a relatively young national team and the potential is huge,” Kek told the media. “There are quite a number of players who have come through the youth ranks and are already now senior regulars.

“Jaka Bijol has evolved into a fantastic player, [as has Adam] Gnezda Cerin. It makes you think that we won’t have to wait another 24 years or even 12 to 13 years to qualify for our next big competition.

“I’m convinced that Slovenia won’t be at [Euro 2024] to do sightseeing. We are not going there as tourists. We are going there to compete. I want the guys to be competitive and they will take that attitude. Why should we not think about progressing through the group stage?”

How did they qualify for Euro 2024?

Jan Oblak has made over 300 appearances for Atletico Madrid
Jan Oblak has made over 300 appearances for Atletico Madrid

Slovenia made the most of a favourable draw in the qualifiers for Germany 2024 to reach their second European Championship, 24 years after their debut appearance at the tournament.

They lost only twice as they finished second in Group H, level on points behind Denmark and ahead of Finland, Kazakhstan, Northern Ireland and San Marino, to book a place at the finals.

Slovenia collected seven wins and 22 points in qualifying, both records for them in a major tournament qualifying campaign.

Who are Slovenia’s key players?

Slovenia striker Benjamin Sesko is regarded as one of the best young talents in Europe
Slovenia striker Benjamin Sesko is regarded as one of the best young talents in Europe

Kek, 62, leads a team with little in the way of experience, save for captain and goalkeeper Jan Oblak, but with several exciting prospects.

The best of the lot is 20-year-old forward Benjamin Sesko, who scored five goals in the qualifying campaign.

“He is the modern striker par excellence. I don’t know where he will play next season, he will decide but, for now, I’ll enjoy him this summer,” Kek told Italian reporters.

Nicknamed 'The Octopus of Skofja Loka', 31-year-old Oblak can expect a busy tournament
Nicknamed ‘The Octopus of Skofja Loka’, 31-year-old Oblak can expect a busy tournament

“We’re talking about a physically strong centre-forward who has made great progress also technically, month after month.

“He came to [the national team] when he was just a lad: a 17-year-old boy, and since then I have been watching him grow into a man. He has become a very important part of the team. Despite his youthfulness, he carries a sort of energy – the character of a diligent boy who would train day and night to achieve his goal.

Did you know?

Slovenia will be making their second appearance at the UEFA EURO, their first participation dating back to 2000. 24 years equals the second longest gap between two appearances at the tournament, the longest belonging to Hungary (44 years).

“From time to time, I have to stop him a bit and calm him down: it’s just the amazing energy [that he has]. He is like a magnet, and such a positive one. It is clear that his likeability and splendid public appearances are making it known to little boys and girls that there is a lot of work, training, and sacrifices behind this [success].”

The 31-year-old Oblak is regarded as one of the best keepers in world football and in his 10 seasons at Atletico Madrid has won the Europa League and been to the Champions League final. But this is a first major tournament for him.

What are their chances of reaching the round of 16?

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Linked with Premier League clubs and set to face England for Slovenia – watch all of Benjamin Sesko goals for RB Leipzig in the Bundesliga this season.

Escaping Group C would represent success for a national team without a nickname.

A return to the Euros after a lengthy absence is a source of much pride for the Slovenes and a 2-0 win over Portugal in a March friendly will have made opponents sit up and take notice.

“We are happy, delighted, and proud. It’s well-deserved for this generation of footballers; they have restored faith in Slovenian football,” added Kek.

Did you know?

At EURO 2000, Slovenia failed to win a single game (D2 L1) whilst Zlatko Zahovic scored three of their four goals. It included drawing the opening match 3-3 against FR Yugoslavia, after having been 3-0 up. It’s the only time a team has failed to win a EURO match after having led by 3+ goals.

A triumphant return at a European Championships would most likely coincide with a successful tournament for Sesko, who provided two assists to accompany those five goals in nine qualifying appearances – the most goals and assists combined of any Slovenian player.

All seven of those goal involvements came in his five home games, so he will need to show he can produce the same output on foreign soil.

The good news is that the tournament is taking place in Germany, where he plies his trade with RB Leipzig.

The 21-year-old forward scored 18 goals in all competitions for Leipzig last season, including goals in each of the last seven Bundesliga matches of the campaign.

Matjaz Kek insists Slovenia aren't going as tourists
Matjaz Kek insists Slovenia aren’t going as tourists

It has sparked plenty of interest from Premier League clubs, including Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester United but uncertainty surrounding his immediate future has been put to bed.

Sesko was said to have a release clause in his deal that would have made him available for £55m until the end of June. He has now signed a new contract with the Bundesliga club.

Benjamin Sesko's heat map and shot map for RB Leipzig in his debut Bundesliga season
Sesko’s heat map and shot map for RB Leipzig in his debut Bundesliga season

Comparisons have been drawn with Erling Haaland, who also played for Red Bull Salzberg before dipping a toe in the Bundesliga, Haaland at Borussia Dortmund and Sesko at Leipzig.

Sesko played his way into the German side’s starting 11 in the second half of his debut season, and his 14 goals in 31 league matches helped clinch a Champions League berth for Leipzig.

The forward, who was eligible to play for either Slovenia or Bosnia & Herzegovina – his mother was born in the latter – has scored 11 goals in 28 internationals since making his debut in 2021.

Arsenal appear to be in pole position for Benjamin Sesko

Sesko has downplayed comparisons to Haaland, while saying his boyhood hero was former Sweden striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who is the same height.

“Personally, I don’t think much of comparisons,” Sesko said after signing for Leipzig.

“Erling is an absolutely world-class striker. I enjoy watching his games on TV and obviously pay attention to what he does in different situations in the game but as I’ve already said I am a completely different type of player.”

View from Slovenia: Fans have big expectations

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Sky Sports football journalists Ron Walker and Joe Shread analyse the threat of Slovenian goalscorer Benjamin Sesko who was on the wanted lists of many Premier League clubs.

Sky Sports senior football journalist Peter Smith spoke to Damir Krznar – who is head coach of Slovenian champions Celje – about the country’s chances of success at the tournament.

“It’s not so common to reach a Euros or World Cup so there is real euphoria,” said Krznar. “You can feel it in every town in Slovenia. They really believe in their team. The group is quite good for them. And the crowd expect a lot.

“They had Denmark in the qualifying group. It was not equal for sure. Denmark, especially in Denmark, was one step ahead, they were the better team. But in Slovenia it was a draw, so they can expect a lot.

“They expect a lot in the game against Serbia. They believe that they can pass the group and everything after that is quite a bonus for them.

“Slovenia is tactically and, as a group, a dangerous team, for sure.”

What system will they play?

“Throughout the qualifiers they played 4-4-2,” says Krznar. “This functions very well. Defensively, they are very stable, with Oblak in the goal, with good structure. Every team had a problem with them in offensive parts. So they’re very good in defensive shape and they try to cut all the good stuff from the opponent team. And they’re quite successful in that.

“Offensively they are fast and from this defensive block they can be very dangerous.”

Can Slovenia exploit England’s left-hand side?

Zan Karnicnik will form part of Slovenia's right side
Zan Karnicnik will form part of Slovenia’s right side

“Zan Karnicnik will play at right full-back,” says Krznar about his Celje defender. “I use him more at left full-back. He’s an excellent player in the offensive phase. Defensively, he can have some problems but he’s a very clever guy and can prevent one-on-one situations.

“He is good in making decisions when he attacks and when he runs back, he waits for support, so he’s a very good player. And what is very good for him, in front of him, as a winger, he has [Petar] Stojanovic, who is also originally a full-back and that is where he plays in Italy for Sampdoria.

“Kek uses him in the national team as a winger. So they’re a very good team on this side with Karnicnik and Stojanovic. They were both very good during the qualifying campaign.”

Fairytale end for Ilicic?

Josip Ilicic has emerged from the depths of depression
Josip Ilicic is back in the national team after suffering depression

Krznar has previously coached Josip Ilicic during their time together at Maribor. The 26-year-old has re-emerged from a time away from the game with depression, starring for Maribor back in his homeland and then making a goal-scoring return to international duty last month. He is now a part of his nation’s final 26-man squad for the Euro 2024

“He’s like new spring,” said Krznar. “He rises again. Excellent player. Everybody knows him from Atalanta. He’s a huge player, great player, and this spring he was for sure player number one in the whole league [Slovenian PrvaLiga for Maribor].

“He reached an excellent level. I’m so happy for him. I hope he can be a very good surprise for Slovenia in the tournament because for him 10-15 minutes is enough to solve the game.

“His individual quality is, maybe, the quality of top 20 in all of Europe. It’s only about the physical, the timing, but, he’s also a very clever guy. Tactically, very smart guy. Good in finishing but in assists even more.”

Full Slovenia squad

Goalkeepers: Jan Oblak (Atletico Madrid), Vid Belec (APOEL), Igor Vekic (Vejle).

Defenders: Petar Stojanovic (Sampdoria), Jaka Bijol (Udinese), Miha Blazic (Lech Poznan), Jure Balkovec (Alanyaspor), Zan Karnicnik (Celje), David Brekalo (Orlando City), Erik Janza (Gornik Zabrze), Vanja Drkusic (Sochi).

Midfielders: Timi Max Elsnik (Olimpija Ljubljana), Jasmin Kurtic (Sudtirol), Benjamin Verbic (Panathinaikos), Sandi Lovric (Udinese), Adam Gnezda Cerin (Panathinaikos), Jon Gorenc Stankovic (Sturm Graz), Tomi Horvat (Sturm Graz), Adrian Zeljkovic (Spartak Trnava), Nino Zugelj (Bodo/Glimt).

Forwards: Josip Ilicic (Maribor), Andraz Sporar (Panathinaikos), Benjamin Sesko (RB Leipzig), Zan Celar (Lugano), Jan Mlakar (Pisa), Zan Vipotnik (Bordeaux).

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