Euro 2012 preview: Czech Republic
The 1996 finalists, though unfancied, will be looking to cause an upset in Group A. Jonathan Wilson on the Czech Republic
The Czech Republic sealed qualification with a play-off victory over Montenegro
Tomas Rosicky has long been the icon of Czech football. The Ã¢ÂÂLittle MozartÃ¢ÂÂ (perhaps an odd name, as the maestro was Austrian) was there in Euro 2004, pulling the strings as the Czech Republic dazzled, coming from 2-0 down to beat Holland only to run into the immovable object that was Otto RehhagelÃ¢ÂÂs Greece in the semi-final. He was there at the 2006 World Cup, playing adequately as the Czechs failed to live up to expectations. And heÃ¢ÂÂs been there for the past few years, underperforming and looking out of sorts alongside his sluggish-looking team-mates.
Recently, though, itÃ¢ÂÂs been a different story. The sudden surge of form Rosicky has enjoyed at Arsenal since February was in evidence for his country three months earlier. Having been anonymous in qualifying, he suddenly looked the Rosicky of old in the play-off win over Montenegro. The question for a grateful nation was: why? Was it simply that it had taken him that long to recover from a long-term tendon injury, as he said, or was it something else?
The coach, Michal Bilek, had been widely criticised after an uninspiring qualifying campaign in which the Czechs scored only 12 goals in eight games despite being in a group with Liechtenstein. They were extremely fortunate to get the benefit of two penalty decisions Ã¢ÂÂ one for, one against Ã¢ÂÂ in drawing with Scotland at Hampden. They lost at home to Lithuania. In hindsight a progression can be seen, culminating in a 4-1 away win, but at the time it felt like one dull display after another.
But then the suspension of Tomas Hubschman led to a rejigged midfield for the play-offs, where the level of control in the 3-0 aggregate win over Montenegro was impressive. Petr Jiracek moved into his preferred position in the middle, and Jaroslav Plasil dropped deeper. The Bordeaux captain suddenly seemed more involved, linking with a rejuvenated Rosicky, who revelled in the playmaking role of a 4-2-3-1. Out on the flanks, Vaclav Pilar and Jan Rezek look to have confirmed their places.
The issue, as it has been for a while, is how to convert that into goals. ItÃ¢ÂÂs far from clear who the CzechsÃ¢ÂÂ first-choice striker will be. Milan Baros played in most of the qualifiers, but 22-year-old Tomas Pekhart of Nuremberg, once of Spurs, performed admirably against Montenegro. Tomas Necid of CSKA Moscow, also 22, could come into contention if he can overcome a ruptured knee ligament, and coming off the bench there is Sparta PragueÃ¢ÂÂs 19-year-old Vaclav Kadlec. He scored against Liechtenstein in his only national appearance, but was a star of last summerÃ¢ÂÂs Under-21 Euros when the Czechs reached the semis.
Defensively BilekÃ¢ÂÂs side is sound, but they need a gifted midfield to click. It did against Montenegro, but in the friendly against Ireland in February they were back to the old stodginess. This easy group, though, may give them time to hit their straps.
Petr Cech's return to form will be a welcome boost for his national team
Lesson from qualifying
Be brave in selection. Leaving out Hubschman, for all his experience, may help the balance of the team. He came on at half-time against Ireland and did little to alter that impression.
They donÃ¢ÂÂt concede many, and have really tightened up in recent games. That perhaps glosses over concerns about the form of Petr Cech, who endured a nightmare Euro 2008. But heÃ¢ÂÂs still a class act and there is solidity in front of him, especially in the Czech RepublicÃ¢ÂÂs first player of African descent, right-back Theodor Gebre Selassie (although he often plays at centre-back for Slovan Liberec). Roman Hubnik of Hertha Berlin and Tomas Sivok of Besiktas make a fine centre-back pairing.
This is a team between generations. Baros may only be 30, but he seems to have been around forever and often plays like it. Rosicky was in a similar slump until his recent resurgence and itÃ¢ÂÂs doubtful that the likes of Plasil and the forward David Lafata will be around come the World Cup. But while some players are on their way out, the side that impressed at the U21 Euros isnÃ¢ÂÂt quite ready, so the Czechs can give the impression of being both stale and naive.
Did you knowÃ¢ÂÂ¦?
Of the Czechoslovakia side that won the Euros in 1976, only three of the starting 11 Ã¢ÂÂ keeper Ivo Viktor, winger Zdenek Nehoda and Antonin Panenka, who scored the decisive chipped penalty Ã¢ÂÂ were Czech. The rest were all Slovak.
Michal Petrak, Sport
Ã¢ÂÂHad the fans judged the CzechsÃ¢ÂÂ chances at the Euros by the performance in the friendly in Norway that BilekÃ¢ÂÂs men lost 3-0 last August, the expectations would be below zero. At that time, there was enormous pressure on Bilek to step down Ã¢ÂÂ and for some of the most disappointing performers never to pull on the national shirt again. However, that match proved a turning point. Bilek abandoned his ill-advised 4-2-2-2 formation, found proper roles for Plasil and Rosicky, and an influx of new blood has given the team new hope, so the mood is a bit more optimistic. The group is unpredictable, but if the Czechs perform as they did in the closing stages of qualifying and in the play-off against Montenegro, they have every chance of progressing.Ã¢ÂÂ
Will do well to make it out of their group.
Arsenal midfielder Rosicky will be a key figure for the Czech Republic
Anyone who watched the 2004 Euros will remember RosickyÃ¢ÂÂs virtuoso performances. And after a difficult and injury-hit few seasons at the Emirates, the schemer has been back on form in recent months. Fitness permitting, he could drag his nation to success this summer.
Voted 1990 World Cup Player of the Year in his home country, 46-year-old Bilek got the coaching position after coming through the backroom ranks. After assisting then-coach and former team-mate Ivan Hasek, Bilek took full control in 2009 following the CzechÃ¢ÂÂs failure to qualify for South Africa, and took them to the Euros via the play-offs.
How they play
The Czech Republic face a difficult task in scoring goals this summer. Their defensive line-up highlights the lack of any real striking options. Baros has 40 international goals, while Rosicky has 20 Ã¢ÂÂ the rest of the expected squad combined have scored only 34 between them. There is serious cause Ã¢ÂÂ¨for concern upfront for the Czechs, and they need Baros to stay fit and firing.
June 8, Russia (Wroclaw, 7.45pm)
June 12, Greece (Wroclaw, 5pm)
June 16, Poland (Wroclaw, 7.45pm)
1960 Semi-finals (as Czechoslovakia)
1992 DNQ (as Czech Republic)
2000 First round
2008 First round
Czech Republic are 66/1 to win Euro 2012 and 16/1 to not score a goal at the tournament.
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FOURFOURTWO'S EURO 2012 PREVIEWS
Grp A: Poland Ã¢ÂÂ¢ Russia Ã¢ÂÂ¢ Greece Ã¢ÂÂ¢ Czech Republic
Grp B: Netherlands Ã¢ÂÂ¢ Germany Ã¢ÂÂ¢ Portugal Ã¢ÂÂ¢ Denmark
Grp C: Spain Ã¢ÂÂ¢ Italy Ã¢ÂÂ¢ Croatia Ã¢ÂÂ¢ Republic of Ireland
Grp D: Ukraine Ã¢ÂÂ¢ England Ã¢ÂÂ¢ France Ã¢ÂÂ¢ Sweden
...and there's more: try Back of the Net's satirical previews