Commentary: The US must stop Slovenia's Novakovič
With an impressive England draw in the rear view mirror, the United States have all eyes forward to Friday's crunch clash with Group C pacesetters Slovenia.
The 'Nats will be expecting a tight affair with the Green Dragons and thus have probably put in extra study on their lead fire-breather, wily Cologne striker Milivoje Novakovič.
Thanks to the extremely detailed prep work favored by coach Bob Bradley, his charges have surely learned by now that containing the 6'3" forward will be a tricky proposition.
Though he looks like and lines up as a target man, Novakovič can hurt an opponent in a variety different ways. With Cologne this season, his team-high six goals came from just about every angle and every part of this body: both feet, head, run of play, set pieces, penalties.
He is good in the air and handles hold-up work with great ease, but there is more to worry about when defending Slovenia's #11 shirt. For starters, Novakovič can be quite nimble on the ball. He uses an array of terrific reception touches to make space for himself, and, though he is no Zlatan Ibrahimovic, he can bust out a few tricks on short dribbles.
The striker passes well in combos around the area and will even fan out wide on occasion, but he doesn't go out there with playmaking for others on his mind. He knows he is his team's cobra head and is always looking to finish.
Always wily in the area, Novakovič has a real knack for scoring those "right place, right time" goals. It certainly does not hurt that his versatile skills allow him to apply the fatal touch in several manners.
He is predictably strong in the air and does not simply rely on power headers. The same goes for his booting, with every shot from the chip to the drive in his bag. He can score with either foot, though he has more command with his right.
If that's not enough to fret over, Novakovič is also Slovenia's #1 dead-ball threat from beyond the area. The 31-year-old warmed up for the World Cup by bagging a pair of free kicks against New Zealand in their final tune-up friendly.
All told, US defenders will want to be on best behavior against Slovenia's top goal threat, who has told every reporter who will listen that this World Cup represents his one big chance to shine.
Novakovič tends to shade to the left with back to goal and to the right with the dribble or post run. Jay DeMerit will especially want to make sure there no cheap fouls around the box, while Oguchi Onyewu has to take up good positions on set pieces.
Though Novakovič will primarily be looking for his own shot, he is not averse to lay-offs, particularly to long-range bomber Valter Birsa. Michael Bradley and Ricardo Clark will be charged with denying him this option.
While it is true that Slovenia will tactically play possum and cede a lot of possession in favor of quick counters, this presents another issue. Novakovič chances will likely be few at best, and those defending him must match his focus.
Combining the shrewd Novakovič’s ability to hide in plain sight with his team's love for deep diagonal crosses, it becomes apparent that the US backliners must aim to stay vigilant for the full 90 minutes.
The good news is that Bradley and Steve Cherundolo are quite familiar with the forward from Bundesliga play. Bradley’s Borussia Monchengladbach held Novakovič scoreless in two matches, both draws, while Cherundolo’s Hannover contained him to just one penalty goal. These two can help coach Bob Bradley prepare everyone for Novakovič beforehand and then act as guides on the field.
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