The Czechs went out of Euro 2012 simply because they could not contain one man, that man being Cristiano Ronaldo. The self-styled ‘CR7’ put in a performance that determined the game. The following morning there were no negative headlines about the team that reached the quarter-finals; instead the majority of journalists were in agreement that getting to the last eight was no mean feat, and defeat to a Ronaldo-inspired Portugal was no embarrassment.
Soon afterwards Milan Baros announced his international retirement, the news coming as no real shock with the striker looking a shadow of his 2004 self. Slightly more surprising was that Tomas Rosicky acknowledged he may no longer have a future at the international level, though any decision would be down to how his body shapes up. The evolution that this Czech side was going through before the Championship will continue to occur as the World Cup in Brazil comes slowly into focus.
Baros certainly won’t be playing in a Czech jersey in 2014, though Rosicky may be. But this summer provides a great chance to continue to blood the next generation, to find a new system that will get the best out of the players in it and try to work out what to do without the Arsenal man. Thankfully, looking back at Euro 2012, the future actually looks quite positive.
The nucleus of this side are still international newcomers and can only get better as they become accustomed to life outside of the Gambrinus Liga. Petr Jiracek has been at German side Wolfsburg for six months, Vaclav Pilar is soon to join him, and Theo Gebre Selassie has just completed the formalities of his move to Werder Bremen. Three of the best players for the Czechs this summer have six months’ experience in a ‘major’ European league combined.
Similarly, Rosicky’s replacement against Portugal, the 21-year-old Vladimir Darida, has spent only half a season as first-choice in the Viktoria Plzen squad. The silky midfielder came into the Plzen midfield replacing Jiracek who had made his move to the Bundesliga. Darida showed in glimpses that he has the potential to become a big-name player; the occasion of the Euro quarter-final failed to faze him and he has since been the subject of a £5 million bid from a Russian outfit which was rejected by Plzen.
Waiting in the wings as well are a hugely talented crop of individuals looking to burst into the national team. The Under-21 squad contains players such as Chelsea’s Tomas Kalas, who looks far more composed and talented beyond his years; Sparta Prague’s Ladislav Krejci, who many wished to be brought to the Euro squad and who set the Gambrinus Liga alight for the majority of the season; and the man who could take over from Milan Baros, Jan Chramosta. And we should not forget the substitute bench that contained Tomas Necid, Tomas Pekhart and Marek Suchy: all could be in contention to be leading stars in 2014. The future certainly is not doom and gloom.
But that is the future. What did Euro 2012 show to the Czech Republic?
The most obvious thing is that versatility and self-belief are two integral factors that this side should take forwards. Jiracek by trade is a box-to-box midfielder, but he filled in out wide very well, while Vaclav Pilar is predominantly a winger but showcased his guile when drifting inside and getting in between the defensive lines. Pilar playing off the main striker might be an option going forwards, but it is really down to where Felix Magath sees him at his best. Jiracek, however, should be moved back inside at the earliest opportunity, though he had a fantastic tournament out wide.
Tomas Hubschman is still a vital player. Even at 30 and after losing his place to Jiracek, the Shakhtar midfielder is a cut above sitting just in front of defence. His presence vastly improved the shape of the side while providing a decent passing option to utilise while going forwards. After fearing his international career may be coming to an end, he has forced himself back into contention impeccably.
Tactically we did not learn anything that we didn’t know going into the tournament. The side is heavily reliant on Tomas Rosicky, or at least the 4-2-3-1 system relies on ‘little Mozart’ to pull the strings in the final third. Many Czech supporters wish to move to a more orthodox 4-4-2, or to a formation that allows for two recognised strikers to play centrally. Whether this option is a valid one going forward remains to be seen, yet as a Plan B there is nothing wrong with this idea, and a Plan B is desperately needed. With the exception of a fleeting few minutes against Russia, the Czechs failed to venture away from their 4-2-3-1 formation and this was their biggest weakness. Addressing that will help the team continue their evolution; sticking with it, while it has garnered results, would cause stagnation. Standing still is the last thing this Czech side needs to do.
So Czech Republic have made it through to the quarter-finals of the European Championships. This aim of reaching the last eight was most likely both the minimum and maximum aims of the side as they began the competition. Reaction back within Czech borders has been positive and now knockout football begins. Anything can, and probably will, happen.
The future also looks highly promising for this side. While there are question marks over Tomas Rosicky and Petr Cech’s long-term futures, Petr Jiracek, Theo Gebre Selassie and Vaclav Pilar will be around for a long period of time. Waiting in the wings are Vladimir Darida (who could turn out to be somebody special) and, in the Under-21 side, there are the prodigious talents of Ladislav Krejci and Tomas Kalas. The ‘golden generation’ may have failed to conquer the world in its heyday, but the future is bright.
Yet while Euro 2012 was as much about looking forward to Brazil 2014 and France 2016, as well as the present obviously, the competition in Poland and Ukraine has had a fair bit of nostalgia associated with it.
The ‘golden generation’ have often been revered as one of the best international sides of the 2000s, putting on what has been considered by journalists and fans alike the game of the decade which saw the Czech Republic come from two goals down to see off Netherlands at Euro 2004. That competition in Portugal was supposed to be the one which saw the Czechs sit atop the European mountain. Sadly, that never happened.
In the Euro 2004 semi-final, Greece defeated the Czech ‘golden generation’ 1-0. The sole goal came in injury time at the end of the first period of extra-time. Traianos Dellas’ headed goal sent the Czechs crashing out of the tournament, while Dellas etched his name into the history books as the first ever ‘silver goal’ scorer in a major continental competition.
That game in Porto was typical of the 2004 Greek side. For long periods of the game they were penned in their own half while the Czech side rattled the woodwork and peppered the Greek goal with shots from all angles. It appeared to be a case of when they scored, rather than if.
The big body blow came when Pavel Nedved had to leave the field 40 minutes in due to injury, robbing the greatest Czech player of his generation the chance to lead his country to potential European glory. Shots still rained in on the Greek goal but the breakthrough never came, Nikopolidis’ net never bulged and so extra-time was needed to separate the two sides. Vassilios Tsiartas took a 106th minute corner and the rest is history. The 2004 Czech Republic squad, the best in the tournament, went home.
Fast-forward eight years and the Greeks faced the Czechs once more on the European stage and a roughly similar system was adopted by Fernando Santos as Otto Rehhagel had used as he lead his Greek side to Euro glory. This time in Wroclaw, after a blistering start saw the Czechs two goals up, they conceded but held firm in the end as the game turned into an edgy affair. The memory of 2004 had been laid to rest, though if the two sides meet once more (and it can only be in the final) then the Greek shadow will be dealt with once again.
But that defeat in Porto eight years ago robbed the world of a potential Portugal-Czech Republic final and what a glorious game of football that would have been. Eight years later, we finally get that game.
For all the looking forward into what future competitions may hold for the Czech national team, you can’t help but look back to Euro 2004 and think of what might have been. This tournament has a habit of bringing the past back to life.
The cards are laid out on the table. Your hand is safe, it is tried and tested, and you know where you stand with it. But it is high stakes. What you have in front of you might not be enough to secure the pot. You look into the eyes of those around you and then turn your gaze back towards the dealer who asks: “Stick or twist?” What do you do?
The gambling metaphor is one often used in a footballing context. Does the manager go with tried-and-tested personnel or does he take a risk, upset the status quo and make a change. This is the situation that Michal Bilek finds himself in heading into the Czechs’ final Euro 2012 group game against co-hosts Poland.
In the two games thus far, all the Czech goals have come from midfield. Lone striker Milan Baros has cut an increasingly isolated figure at the helm of the 4-2-3-1 formation, failing to register a single shot in his 149 minutes on the pitch in Wroclaw. The statistic provides weight to the argument that he must be dropped if this Czech side are to prosper and stokes the already smouldering fire among the fans who wish to see somebody else play up front.
The problem is not necessarily Baros’ fault; he is by no means an imposing force, nor is he a brilliant all-round striker who can offer as much in the link-up play as he can running towards goal. Milan Baros in 2012 is an adequate front-to-goal forward who can smartly work the channels and, when given a clear opportunity, is still a lethal finisher.
Much to the delight of the fans, Tomas Pekhart got 25 minutes to impress against Greece. Pekhart, 23, is a much more rounded forward, not as clinical, but far more of an aerial threat than Baros. Yet defending a one-goal lead, and without the guile of Rosicky, the Czech midfield slipped deeper and deeper and it was Pekhart’s turn to be left out in the cold in the final third while play was bogged down in midfield. Just like Baros, Pekhart failed to muster a single shot. The other attacking option to see game time, David Lafata, is also in this club. Criticising Baros, which has become a favourite pastime of the Czech supporters, is clearly misguided as three recognised striker aren’t wearing any shooting boots at all.
The goals are coming from midfield and, while it is really positive that the rest of the team can pick up the slack, they can be counted on only for so long. There will come a time, and you would expect it is against Poland, when the strikers will have to stand up and make themselves counted. Changes will needed to be made in order to allow that, but does Bilek alter things to try to bring Baros or Pekhart into the game more, or does he keep things as they are?
Baros is not the option going forwards, and he is unlikely to be first-choice for much longer, but the statistics don’t lie. In this system it seems whoever is leading the line will be in for a frustrating evening. With the Czechs generally playing things along the floor when they get into the final third, you would expect the Galatasaray man to keep his place. But needing a result, Pekhart could be given the chance to impress from the get go if Bilek decides to tinker. With a victory securing a place in the last eight, maybe it is time for Bilek to gamble.
A lot has been made of club links being replicated in national sides at Euro 2012. Spain have their Barcelona and Real Madrid connections, Germany revolve around a core of Bayern Munich players, the entire midfield (and the majority of the strikers) of Russia are based in Saint Petersburg and England, like it or lump it, have a group of Liverpudlians. Michael Cox, known to many of us as @zonal_marking, has mentioned this theme, noting it as a key one for the tournament:
“Football is, more than ever, based around familiarity and cohesion when it comes to passing moves. Club football has never been so superior to international football, and it’s now obvious that international sides suffer by not having enough time to work on attacking moves as club sides.” (Michael Cox)
In their opening game, Czech Republic were easily brushed aside, succumbing to the superior skills of Dzagoev and Arshavin et al and failing to find a way to the quick and accurate passing of the Russian midfield. All of the Czechs in their starting XI represented a different club side. Was this a factor?
Firstly, that stat, while true, is a little misleading. Vaclav Pilar and Petr Jiracek enjoyed a six-month spell together in the same Plzen side this season before Jiracek headed to Wolfsburg in January (Pilar will be joining him after the tournament), and the season before Jan Rezek and Petr Jiracek were part of the Plzen side that won the Gambrinus Liga for the first time in their history. But that isn’t exactly a nucleus the likes of Germany or Spain boast.
Under the surface of that starting XI, there is a real hub of Plzen players. Frantisek Rajtoral, David Limbersky, Vladimir Darida, Milan Petrzela and Daniel Kolar (in addition to Pilar and Jiracek) have all regularly been in the starting line-up for Viktoria Plzen this year. As a unit they know each other’s movements and nuances, at times showing a telepathic understand of where their team-mates will be at any given moment.
However, it is not just about the personnel that a team has - it is perhaps more to do with how that team is set up. Spain play like Barcelona, this German side have their similarities with Bayern and so on. But this Czech side don’t play like Plzen do and if they did their results might be a little different.
One glance at the UEFA-produced statistics tells the tale. The Czechs completed only 66% of their ‘short’ passes. Plzen, while containing gifted players who can string a bunch of passes together, are often at their most thrilling in a direct counter-attacking style: Petrzela and Pilar running with the ball and the veteran playmaker Paval Horvath pinging balls from deep, bypassing midfield lines in an instant.
In Jaroslav Plasil, Michal Bilek has a player at his disposal who can perform in that role and perhaps a change in emphasis from neat, short passing to a more direct style would work. The statistics back it up: the Czechs had significantly higher pass completion rates over ‘medium’ and ‘long’ distances than Russia.
Replicating successful club-based patterns are proven to work on the international stage. It may be time for Michal Bilek to copy this model and replicate it on the Czech national team. The only thing that could hold this back, however, is one of his favourites: Milan Baros. Can he be the target man required for a more direct style of play and, conversely, is his reliance on the ball played to his feet holding back the other 22?
In the opening game Poland face 2004 winners Greece, but, rather obviously, the focus of this blog will be on the game that kicks off nearly three hours later and some 340km to the South-East as the Czech Republic start their tournament against Russia.
The starting XI looks to be fairly certain at the moment. Tomáš Rosický has been deemed fit enough to play the full ninety minutes which can only aid Czech changes. Elsewhere on the field Michal Kadlec appears to be utilised as a centre-back (unless there is a sudden change of heart by Michal Bílek) and the industry of Petr Jiráček seems to be preferred over the defensive stability that Tomáš Hübschman offers. The latter decision certainly adds more mobility to the midfield unit and creates a more well rounded attacking threat from the midfield with Jiráček having a knack of finding himself in the right place at the right and has grabbed himself seven goals for club(s) and country this season. The defensive choice makes sense too; Kadlec when utilised as a centre-back has appeared a solid and reliable option even though he is a left-back by trade. This also allows David Limberský the chance to start which will help the balance of the side for he and Theo Gebre Selassie are similar types of full-backs.
[edit, Roman Hubník was picked ahead of David Limberský]
Starting XI (4-2-3-1): Čech - Gebre Selassie, Sivok, Kadlec, Limberský - Plašil, Jiráček - Rezek, Rosický, Pilař - Baroš
So, who is who?
Chances are that readers of this page will be aware of the big names, there should be no need for an introduction to the likes of Čech, Rosický and Baroš who have all had varying levels of success in the Premier League and alongside the quietly influential Jaroslav Plašil are survivors of the ill-fated 2004 squad that was considered the best in Europe that summer. But away from this group of players which we can thrown Leverkusen's Michal Kadlec into, the players may be totally unfamiliar to people out there and Euro 2012 may well be the first time they have seen them in action.
Petr Čech (Chelsea)
One of the best in goalkeepers in Europe, if not worldwide. At times the Chelsea goalkeeper can be unbeatable, as Barcelona and Bayern Munich found out to their detriment in the Champions League this season. Understandably a key figure for the Czech side.
Theo Gebre Selassie (Slovan Liberec)
An attack minded right-back who has been in scintillating form for Liberec throughout the season with whom he has scored five goals. Unlikely to remain in the Czech Republic beyond this summer, Gebre Selassie harbours a great amount of game intelligence, rarely caught out of position even after breaking forwards to join attacks.
Tomáš Sivok (Beşiktaş)
A confident centre-half who carries a distinct aerial threat in conjunction to his ability on the floor, Sivok is very good all round centre-back who impresses in all areas. His domestic future hangs in the balance as Beşiktaş look to cut costs.
Roman Hubník (Hertha Berlin)
The central defender has endured a torrid season with the Berlin club in a season which saw the side drop out of the Bundesliga. Solid and reliable, though a lack of pace raises issues about his longevity in the side. His tried and tested partnership with Sivok probably swung the balance in his favour as he was chose to start.
Michal Kadlec (Bayer Leverkusen)
An exceptional left-back who is as comfortable when pushed inside to the centre of defence. First choice for club and country, the versatile defender is probably the first defensive name on the team-sheet. Just like his father Miroslav was, Kadlec is first-choice penalty taker and he rarely misses from the spot hence his status as the top scorer for this Czech side in qualification.
Jaroslav Plašil (Bordeaux)
Rosický and Čech may be the obvious stars of the team, but the Bordeaux captain is a very influential player in his own right. His ability at playing high up the pitch or in a more withdrawn position closer allows flexibility in the side and with Daniel Kolář failing to impress in warm-up matches he could be Rosický's replacement. Comfortable on the ball and good at retaining possession.
Petr Jiráček (VFl Wolfsburg)
Jiráček is the very definition of a late-bloomer: playing second tier football a few years ago he then endured a torrid start when he moved to Plzeň, but after settling down, the box-to-box midfielder grew in stature to become an integral part of Pavel Vrba’s title winning side. His performances this season earned him a move to Germany where he has fitted in well though a rib injury has seen him fall slightly down the pecking order at Wolfsburg. The workhorse of the side, the metaphorical Duracell bunny in midfield.
Jan Rezek (Anorthosis Famagusta)
The scourge of Scotland alongside Dutch referee Kevin Blom after his antics at Hampden. The forward-come-winger had a strong goal-scoring record in qualification netting twice in five appearances from out wide. A bit one dimensional in cutting in to support the lone striker, but this is not too much of a problem if Gebre Selassie is given license to provide width on the right. Has a knack of working the channels well.
Tomáš Rosický (Arsenal)
An injury scare has been the talk of the build up to Euro 2012, but all reports are that the Arsenal midfield is more than fit enough to start against Russia and lead his country out through the tournament. A mercurial figure capable of opening up the best defences his form and fitness could well be the deciding factor for this side.
Václav Pilař (Viktoria Plzeň)
Tricky and skilful, the left-winger had a will-he, won’t-he transfer saga over the winter and is will be joining Jiráček in Wolfsburg after the tournament. Offensively one to watch; capable of brilliance when drifting inside the Hradec Kralove youth product could very well be the man to take over the mantle from Tomáš Rosický in the years to come. But for the moment still seen as wide-man, not that he'll hug the touchline throughout the game.
Milan Baroš (Galatasaray)
Euro 2012 is expected to be the ex-Liverpool and Aston Villa striker's final hurrah on the international stage. Arguably not suited to the lone-striker role, Baroš' real strengths are as a penalty box striker and if the service is right, he could quite feasibly
If the two fullbacks can bring their domestic form and playing side to the national team, then the quality out wide has the ability to overrun their opponents. Rezek and Pilař darting inside opening up space for Limberský and Gebre Selassie to capitalise upon is a mouth watering, and dangerous prospect. Obviously problems to this approach such as defensive vulnerability committing so many men forwards, but if tweaks are made it should not be too much of a problem.
Obvious as it is, the lack of goals is a worry. Michal Kadlec was top scorer in qualifying, his status as penalty taker explaining that one, which also underlines the lack of ability to grab goals from open play. Dropping Baroš or changing formation to one with two recognised strikers would help rectify this, but Bílek is content with the current system.
Let’s start off my discussing the elephant in the room. A very large one if you are Scottish.
Yes, the Czech’s were extremely lucky to escape from Hampden Park with a point when they faced off last September. Jan Rezek’s tumble, or if we call it what it was, a dive, gave the Czechs an 85th minute penalty which Michal Kadlec duly converted. The Scots were rightly up in arms about this decision; a nation vented it's outrage at the Dutch official. Some people even took to social media to attack me for it...
Lost in the mix though was that Michal Bílek’s squad left Glasgow with a point, one on the balance of play they more than deserved, but it was one gained in the most controversial of circumstances. If the Mr. Blom had been consistent in his decision making then Group I could have taken on a completely different dimension and Scotland could have been in Poland and Ukraine this summer.
After the game Craig Levin’s words were measured but laced with disappointment and anger. Over in Prague the knives were being sharpened and pointed in the direction of Michal Bílek and the older members of his squad. There was no dignity for the team in the immediacy after the trip to Scotland. Ex-internationals laid into both management and the elder group of players in the squad meanwhile on the streets, everybody was a critic.
Yet a few short months and a couple of games later everybody was eating their words. After the team and manager had been written off by large sections of the press, their peers and the fans, the Czech’s swept aside an organised Montenegro side in Prague before holding on in Pogdorica to guarntee their ticket to Euro 2012.
At the heart of this revival were the big names you’d expect: Tomáš Rosický looked near his imperious best, Bordeaux’s Jaroslav Plašil pulled strings in midfield and Petr Čech dealt with the kitchen sink that was thrown at him. But alongside these standout performances the strong Czech based presence to the squad stood out.
This band of players, mainly contracted to Viktoria Plzeň, had up until Hampden next to no international experience when a few of them were thrust in at the deep end. But afterwards, with Bílek's tenure looking bleak, the manager continued to put faith in those largely untried and untested at this level. Players such as Theo Gebre Selassie and Vaclav Pilař came into the squad and have emerged as key components to the side, while others like Petr Jirácek have gone from strength to strength since their debut in Glasgow.
Out of the indignity of Hampden Park rose a side that played with confidence and flexibility and provided a nice balance of fresh faces and experiences brows.
It marked the start of something new, something better.
Be aware this summer of the Czech’s you do know, but fear the names you don’t. For from their darkest hour in qualifaction this Czech side have begun the rebuilding process and have come across, by luck, desperation or otherwise, a side that deserves the tag of 'dark horses' this summer. Rezek's dive may well have been the catalyst for this change and for that we should thank him.
Tomáš Rosický has been named in the Czech Republic’s final squad for Euro 2012 despite lingering injury concerns.
The Czech captain, 31, had been suffering from a calf problem but said earlier this week that he expected to be fit for the tournament.
Rosický is unlikely to play in the Czech Republic’s final pre-tournament friendly against Hungary in Prague on Friday, but said he hoped to be back in full training soon, adding: “'I can't say any date - it depends only on how I feel.
Michal Bilek, the Czech coach, had already called Vladimír Darida into the squad at the expense of Daniel Pudil after the Viktoria Plzeň midfielder impressed in Saturday’s 2-1 friendly victory over Israel. He also, as expected, cut the Teplice goalkeeper Tomáš Grigar from his provisional squad.
Goalkeepers: Petr Čech (Chelsea), Jaroslav Drobný (Hamburg), Jan Laštůvka (Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk).
Defenders: Theodor Gebre Selassie (Slovan Liberec), Roman Hubník (Hertha Berlin), Michal Kadlec (Bayer Leverkusen), David Limberský (Viktoria Plzeň), František Rajtoral (Viktoria Plzeň) Tomáš Sivok (Besiktas), Marek Suchý (Spartak Moscow).
Midfielders: Vladimír Darida (Viktoria Plzeň), Tomáš Hübschman (Shakhtar Donetsk), Petr Jiráček (Wolfsburg), Daniel Kolář (Viktoria Plzeň), Milan Petržela (Viktoria Plzeň), Vaclav Pilar (Wolfsburg), Jaroslav Plašil (Bordeaux), Tomáš Rosický (Arsenal).
Forwards: Milan Baroš (Galatasaray), David Lafata (Jablonec), Tomáš Necid (CSKA Moscow), Tomáš Pekhart (Nuremberg), Jan Rezek (Anorthosis Famagusta).