Pavel Hapal claims the decision not to allow Napoli midfielder Stanislav Lobotka return home for Thursday night's Euro2020 playoff game against Ireland will not derail the hosts' preparations. But the relentless efforts made by the Slovak coach, his employers and the team's other star player, Marek Hamsik, to secure the 25-year-old's availability only serve to emphasise just how important they believe he has become to the side.
Hapal described the situation, which is rooted in the two positive tests returned for Napoli players ahead of the club’s scheduled game at Juventus last weekend, as “astonishing” at his pre-match press conference on Wednesday.
His belief had been that once the midfielder tested negative three times he would be released but the situation somehow stalled in the wake of the third test, which the club had flagged on Tuesday evening as having gone well. Some time after that, it was claimed, Napoli basically stopped taking calls from the Slovaks.
Even a direct intervention by Hamsik, a huge hero at the club where he spent 12 seasons before departing for China with the second highest tally of goals ever, failed to cut any ice. “I tried to drag him here, he is a very important player for our team,” said the 33-year-old. “But there was not much we could do about it, we have to go forward without him.”
Ultimately, Hapal seemed to acknowledge that the problem, from his perspective, lay in the fact that the decision was made on public health grounds by local government officials rather than those in charge of the football club. It didn’t seem to be providing the coach with much consolation, though.
The 51-year-old said that Lobotka’s absence would not impact too much on a team selection that he said was “90 per cent” complete. His side is so settled when everyone is available that he probably knows close to that many of his starting line-up when announcing his squad. But there is still a big hole to fill and though the most obvious solution may be to ask Hamsik to play the deeper, more central role vacated – something he has previously done with distinction – that would obviously create a new problem to be solved.
Lobotka’s role revolved, to a significant extent, around his talent from dropping deep to pick up possession then pushing the team forward, often by running past opponents with the ball at his feet and so opening things up as others were forced to act in order to close him down. Hamsik, though hugely versatile, tends to operate more on the attacking side these days and it is not entirely clear that he would be able to operate between the boxes for 90 minutes at this stage of his career.
Having him play closer to his own might well suit the visitors given that he, like 20-year-old Robert Bozenik, an up and coming striker with Feyenoord, got three goals in last year's group stage of qualifying when the team finished four points adrift of Croatia but just one behind Wales.
The stats would suggest that the Slovaks passed Ryan Giggs’s side off the park, especially in the home game, but the Welsh created more chances on both occasions and though Hamsik and co might feel they deserved two draws, they managed just one which cost them dearly.
They are a decent side, though, despite missing a couple of other regulars on this occasion with the likes of right back Peter Pekarik of Hertha Berlin and Parma midfielder Juraj Kucka bringing quality and they are all hugely familiar with an attacking game plan that generally includes the full backs looking to push forward at every opportunity.
Their left-sided one, David Hancko is out, though, along with regular centre back Milan Skriniar, who tested positive for Covid-19 on Wednesday and Martin Dubravka's absence leaves Hapal without his first-choice goalkeeper.
Hamsik has been around long enough to have started the last four of five meetings between the two sides, all draws, and suggested as he considered the prospect of this game that: “It’s time to break that run. This is the right match.”
There is nothing, though, to suggest that there is much between the sides now either . . . certainly not their respective world rankings or the way they have ended up in this game. And having singled Lobotka out as a key concern at the weekend, Stephen Kenny might just feel that the balance of things has shifted ever so slightly in his side's favour.