Ask an English supporter about Slovakian defenders, and the frightening face of Martin Skrtel immediately comes to mind. The former Liverpool man is still going strong at Fenerbahce, and is expected to take the field at Wembley against England on Monday, but his partner is supposed to be very different.
Milan Skriniar, a decade younger than Skrtel, might not be as tough and aggressive as the veteran, but he is definitely more graceful and elegant. Quality ball distribution is one of his major strengths, and he had been compared by some pundits to Alessandro Nesta after a hugely impressive season at Sampdoria in Serie A. It wouldn't have been a surprise if the 22-year-old had moved to AC Milan, where the legend used to shine, especially taking his suitable first name into account. Skriniar, however, was purchased by the other team at San Siro, joining Inter for the Slovakian record fee of €35 million, according to Sampdoria owner Massimo Ferrero.
It has been a remarkable rise for someone who wasn't really considered a bright prospect in his homeland. Skrtel moved to Zenit Saint Petersburg as a proven national team player when he was 19, but Skriniar was still a bench warmer at Zilina at the same age, following a loan spell at tiny Zlate Moravce. The general perception in the media was that he was a rather slow and awkward defensive midfielder. His coaches most definitely disagreed, however, and that is what really mattered.
"Milan was a particularly talented and smart kid for his age. He worked patiently on his ball skills, heading and shooting," said Igor Chodelka, who worked with Skriniar at Zilina's under-13 team.
"He has always been the leader on and off the pitch," claimed Tibor Goljan, who coached him at the club's under-17 selection.
The best compliment was probably given by Pavel Hapal, Slovakia's under-21 national team coach, who stated: "All players should work like Milan. Football is not just about talent."
He has always been known as "Skrinka" ("locker" in Slovakian), an affectionate nickname among his teammates. Modest and dedicated, he made his utmost effort, and was rewarded in 2014 when Zilina decided to gamble on local academy graduates. Coach Adrian Gul'a, who stated that his protege has "good feet and brain," then found his best position, moving Skriniar into central defence in an inspired decision. Less than two years on, Sampdoria came knocking, ready to pay €1 million in January 2016.
Some thought it was a huge gamble, and Skriniar indeed struggled mightily in his first months in Genoa.
"The beginning was very difficult because I didn't speak Italian," he said in an interview to Tuttosport. "All the foreign players need their learning period. The technical and tactical level is very different to what I was used to in Slovakia."
Fellow Slovakian midfielder David Ivan, a close friend from the youth national teams, helped him to settle at the club, but Skriniar was used only twice in the starting lineup under Vincenzo Montella, and the second of those matches proved to be a total disaster. Facing the champions Juventus away, he was overwhelmed by the occasion, sent off after just 14 minutes for a foul on Mario Mandzukic in the penalty area. Sampdoria were thrashed 5-0 as a result.
Exactly a year later, in May 2017, Skriniar experienced deja vu at Olimpico. The stopper had a torrid time against Lazio's Senegalese star Keita Balde, responsible for his first goal and then bringing him down in the penalty area and receiving a red card on 17 minutes. The hosts won 7-3, and the Slovakian was slaughtered in the press, but that was seen as an irrelevant affair nevertheless. His reputation had grown incredibly between the two fiascos, largely thanks to the guidance of Marco Giampaolo.
The coach, who replaced Montella a year ago, made Skriniar the linchpin of his rearguard, and it all started with the preseason Joan Gamper Trophy fixture at Barcelona. The youngster entered the field at half-time when Barca led 3-1, and even though Sampdoria eventually lost 3-2, he humorously claimed to have won "his 45 minutes" against Lionel Messi while helping to keep a clean sheet. The Slovakian's self-confidence was sky high thereafter, while Giampaolo enabled him to become the youngest defender in Serie A to take part in 35 matches last term.
"I have to thank the 'mister' who put his faith in me," Skriniar said. "I made a few errors that cost us points against Roma and Milan in the beginning of the season, but the coach's confidence helped me to overcome them and grow as a player."
It is quite symbolic that Sampdoria managed to beat both Roma and Milan in the return fixtures, but Skriniar looks to have saved his best performances for the matches against Inter. The Nerazzurri were beaten on both occasions last term, and it was logical that they were the keenest to sign the prodigy who attracted interest from various top clubs, including Bayern Munich and Atletico Madrid.
Naturally, national team coach Jan Kozak couldn't ignore the new star, even though Skriniar continued to play for the U21 side, and even took part in the European Under-21 Championship this summer, where Slovakia dramatically lost out to England at the group stage. At the same time, he became an integral part of the senior team, but Kozak faced a difficult dilemma regarding his position.
With Skrtel and Jan Durica still in high regard, the coach chose to use Skriniar in defensive midfield at times, and the results were positive. This is where he is likely to be positioned at Wembley, after starting the season in encouraging fashion.
Inter are inspired under Luciano Spalletti, beating Fiorentina and Roma in the first two Serie A fixtures with Skriniar calling the shots at the back. The national team then proceeded to win their fifth game in a row with "Skrinka" in the starting lineup, 1-0 against Slovenia. They are now just two points behind England, and a sensational performance on Monday could see them leapfrog the Three Lions into the top spot in Group F.
Skrtel is likely to play an important role if that happens, but Skriniar should be even more dominant, and the future belongs to him.