After reaching the tournament final in 1996, it was in the sun soaked European Championships of Portugal that the Czech Republic national team re-established themselves as one of the best sides in international football.
However, eight years have passed since the Czech dark horses were upset by Greece in the Euro semi-final, and the team heading into Poland under Michal Bilek’s command this June do not have the same luxurious calibre of player as the 2004 side that brought worldwide respect to the scarlet jerseys of the Nároďák. However, with a group consisting of Russia, Greece and Poland, the Czech nation will certainly fancy their chances of progressing to the quarter finals of this summer’s competition.
The Czech side did not display outstanding form in their Euro qualifying group, scoring less than any other team that will feature in Poland/Ukraine yet sneaking narrowly into the play-offs thanks to a controversial draw with Scotland and a tight defence. Second place in the group saw the country drawn against Montenegro in the play-offs however, and this time the Czechs turned up, throwing up a 3-0 aggregate win and a performance worthy of their Euro 2004 predecessors. It will be essential come June that it is this Czech Republic side, and not the team that stuttered in qualifying, that turns up to play.
The remainders of the ferocious team that strode unbeaten through 2002 and 2003 remain scrambled throughout the current Czech side. At the core of the team stands Arsenal man and Bilek’s captain Tomas Rosicky, who after flirting with form throughout last season caught fire late on to guarantee the Gunners third place and Champions League action next year. Rosicky will command the attack from just behind Milan Baros and if he can feed speedy wingmen Pilar and Rezek into dangerous positions the resulting attacks will be difficult to defend.
Jaroslav Plasil also returns with memories of that semi-final in Portugal, and the pairing of Plasil and new star Petr Jirosek in the defensive midfield role of the Czechs 4-2-3-1 formation will be key in ensuring they keep a strong hold of possession. Wolfsburg man Jirasek should prove a solid pairing for Plasil, complementing the veteran’s talent with a tactical mindset and a set of legs that could clock up for miles on a treadmill than Forrest Gump.
Petr Cech will also be an essential component in Bilek’s team, and his nation will hope he can bring his recent Premier League form to the international stage. Cech’s super saving will likely be required on several occasions, as whilst Greece are largely a “set-piece team”, Russian and Polish danger-men like Alan Dzagoev and Robert Lewandowski are sure to force some sterling stops.
Nevertheless, the Chelsea stopper will be helped with a solid back four of Selassie, Kadlec, Hubnik, and Sivok. Whilst Hubnik may struggle at times, Theodor Gebre Selassie has drawn particular praise for his attacking prowess from the right-back position at international level, and the skilful Liberec defender guided his club team to their first league title since 2006 this year.
At the other end of the pitch stands veteran striker Milan Baros. Despite taking home the Euro’s golden boot in 2004, the forward has somewhat lost his touch in recent years. Nevertheless, after a slow start to the year for CKSA Moscow, by the end of the 11/12 season Baros had formed a strong partnership with Elmander at Galatasaray, but although he certainly has the potential to shine it is unlikely the experienced 30 year old will rediscover his form from eight years ago.
With young strikers Tomas Pekhart and Tomas Necid failing to fire on all cylinders at international level though, Bilek may have to look to the experienced David Lafata to chalk up the goals, and although the striker recently broke the goal scoring record in the Czech Gambrinus Liga he doesn’t have the best of records wearing his country’s badge either. It seems then it will be down to Baros to reignite the fire of the “Lokomotiva”.
The main issue of the Czech side lies in their potentially blunt spearhead then, but with a strong defence and smart link up play between the attackers and defensive midfield contingent, the side still has the potential to present a formidable opponent.
The realistic aim of the country will be to get out of a group in which they could beat every side, and without the weight of expectation on their shoulders they may just be able to do just that. Bilek just needs to find a frequent source of goals first or it could be checkmate for the Czechs with only three games under their belt.