The Czechs have a proud tradition at the European Championships, from winning the title in 1976 to defeat in the final in England twenty years later. The fans will certainly not waver in their support for a side that managed to get to the tournament despite a qualifying group containing Spain; the play-off win over surprise package Montenegro has revitalised enthusiasm.
However, the swashbuckling football of the 2000s is a thing of the past. The talent pool from which manager Michal Bílek can draw is less promising than it has been for years, and the Czechs will surely struggle to make any real impact in Poland and Ukraine this summer.
On the plus side, Bílek has done well to integrate players such as Milan Petržela and Petr Jiráček from the Viktoria Plzen side that has dominated Czech domestic football in recent years, whilst retaining the familiar core of Petr Čech, Tomáš Rosický, and Milan Baroš. The Chelsea and Arsenal men in particular have had fine individual seasons and are free of niggling injury concerns. Experience is also available from the bench, for instance in form of assured Shakhtar Donetsk midfielder Tomáš Hübschman; yet the doubts remain.
The swashbuckling football of the 2000s is a thing of the past
Bílek has done as well as could reasonably have been expected having taken over prior to qualifying for the Euros, but is seen as an uninspiring figure by the national press. Players that he has been forced to turn to replace departed talents like Pavel Nedved are hardly world-beaters – Jan Rezek, for instance, plies his trade in Cyprus. Baroš comes off an insipid season for Galatasaray and back-up strikers Tomáš Necid and Tomáš Peckhart will struggle at this level. Inconsistency in friendlies hints at an uncertainty about the Czechs that will probably be punished by Europe’s finest.
The Key Man
Tomáš Rosický will captain the side off the back of arguably his best club season in years. Injuries have plagued the former Borussia Dortmund star who seemed to have the world at his feet following impressive performances at World Cup 2006, his last international tournament. But in the second half of Arsenal’s seesaw season, he came into his own, showing a quickness of decision-making and passing that had previously been lacking. Rosický is likely to be the only truly creative player in the Czech team, the fulcrum in Bílek’s 4-2-3-1, and the well-liked and respected veteran will hope to translate his rediscovered confidence into convincing performances.
Ones to Watch
Several players have come into the team under Bílek. Petr Jiráček and Václav Pilař both came into the national set-up from the dominant Plzen club side, and have both since moved to Wolfsburg in the Bundesliga, suggesting a greater degree of potential than other squad members. Jiráček is another of Europe’s late bloomers this season – he is already 26, but his energy breaking forward from midfield has boosted the Czechs, and this season he gained valuable Champions’ League experience. Pilař was also snapped up by Wolfsburg’s transfer-happy coach Felix Magath, and at 23 has potential. He will play on the wing, and look to use his diminutive stature and pace to cut inside. Both Jiráček and Pilař signaled their importance to the team with goals in the play-off against Montenegro. Realistically, though, the Czechs cannot lay claim to any truly exciting talents going into the competition.
Bílek has settled upon a functional 4-2-3-1 system. Čech will play behind Theodore Selassie (the Czech Republic’s first ever black player), Roman Hubnik, Tomáš Sivok, and Michal Kadlec in a solid enough base. Bordeaux stalwart Jaroslav Plašil is the more prosaic midfielder alongside the tireless Jiráček. Anorthosis Famagusta’s Jan Rezek and Pilař will play as fairly unadventurous wingers in support of Rosický’s creativity in the middle, whilst Baroš is alone up front. Peckhart can play as a second striker if Bílek decides to add to his firepower, although he is lacking international experience.
Probable line-up (4-2-3-1)
Čech; Selassie, Hubnik, Sivok, Kadlec; Plašil, Jiráček; Rezek, Pilař, Rosický; Baroš
The Czech Republic’s principle advantage is their draw into what is universally acknowledged as the weakest group, Group A. Any two of Russia, Poland, Greece, and the Czechs can have reasonable expectations of qualifying for the knockouts, and the group may well see a high number of draws. If they want to make a real impression, however, the Czechs must then overcome one of Holland or Germany (or possibly Portugal) in the quarter-finals. Not too many at home would expect anything more than a last eight departure for the European Championship veterans.
- Sam Goff (Football Watcher)