||ESPNsoccernet: Euro 2004
Thursday, June 10, 2004
Czechs hope to exorcise demons
Group D Preview
Four years after having their hopes shattered at Euro 2000 the Czech Republic once again
arrive at a major finals with an outside chance of success.
If they are to claim their first silverware since winning
the 1976 European Championship in the former Yugoslavia,
however, they will first have to pick a path through a
treacherous looking Group D.
At the last European Championship they were grouped with
eventual winners France, the Netherlands and Denmark. This time
they must face the Dutch again, three-times winners Germany and
rank outsiders Latvia.
It is a formidable test but at least the Czechs, who drew
with and then beat the Dutch in qualifying, have the chance to
erase some recent bad memories from the finals.
At Euro 2000 they outplayed co-hosts the Netherlands, twice
hitting the woodwork only to lose 1-0 to a last-minute penalty,
a result that paved the way to an early exit.
Four years earlier they unexpectedly reached the final at
Wembley but were struck down in the final by Oliver Bierhoff's
golden goal for Germany.
Form can be misleading in the build-up to major tournaments
but if it can be used in making predictions then the Czechs
should progress to the quarter-finals.
With just two defeats in 24 matches since 64-year-old Karel
Brueckner took charge and with former European Footballer of the
Year Pavel Nedved pulling the strings in midfield, the Czechs
should outclass Latvia in their June 19 opener in Aveiro.
Nedved is desperate to succeed, especially after being
vilified when the Czechs failed to reach the 2002 World Cup
finals. At 31, the Juventus player knows he is running out of
time to reward his talent on the international stage.
After Nedved attempts to dismantle Latvia the focus will
turn to Tuesday's other Group D match between Germany and the
Netherlands in Porto - one of the true heavyweight fixtures of
Defeat for either team will fuel the criticism spread by
woeful friendly results in the weeks leading up to Euro 2004.
Germany suffered a humiliating 5-1 loss in Romania and were
jeered off the pitch after a 2-0 home defeat by Hungary while
the Netherlands lost to Belgium and Ireland.
The Germans, though, have an uncanny ability to rise to the
big occasion and goalkeeper and captain Oliver Kahn, in top form
during their journey to the last World Cup final, expects it to
be no different this time.
"You will see a totally different Germany," said the
inspirational 34-year-old, aiming to help his country to a first
victory over the Dutch since a friendly in 1996.
Germany's hopes will rest on the shoulders of their one
world-class flair player Michael Ballack.
The Dutch are blessed with an abundance of talent but
forging it into a functioning unit has been beyond most previous
coaches, barring Rinus Michels who steered them to European
glory in 1988, their only title to date.
Dick Advocaat is charged with that task this time and he
will probably be relieved when the first game kicks off after a
build-up marred by poor performances and injury worries.
Experienced midfielder Clarence Seedorf is a definite
non-starter against Germany after injuring a hamstring in the
1-0 defeat by Ireland - a result that has prompted Advocaat to
opt for an attacking 4-3-3 system.
Andy van der Meyde, Marc Overmars and Arjen Robben will
provide the width, though all three have minor injury worries.
Latvia coach Aleksandrs Starkovs has no such pressure with
most people expecting the small Baltic state to return home
pointless after he labelled their qualification "a miracle".
Nevertheless, the three big guns will be fearful of becoming
the fall guys for one of the freakish results often thrown up in
the group stages.
Indeed, Latvia's results could be the decisive factor in a
group that is too close to call.