Teams of the Decade #8: Czech Republic, 2004

February 22, 2010

It may have been brief, but it was beautiful. The Czech Republic side of Euro 2004 was brilliant, because they had everything in an attacking sense. They had an aerial threat from 6′7 Jan Koller. They had pace upfront from Milan Baros. They had the finest footballer in Europe at the time in Pavel Nedved, and Poborsky and Rosicky who could play either centrally or wide. They had a deep playmaker in Tomas Galasek, and two rampaging full-backs who got up and down the line all day.

When teams are one-dimensional, it’s easy to put in place a system to stop them. When a side like the Czechs have so many options going forward, it’s almost impossible, and that’s why Karel Bruckner’s team were great to watch. Add the best goalkeeper in the World and two strong centre-backs, and the Czechs were incredible.

The reason Bruckner could afford to play two strikers and three attacking midfielders was because none of those midfielders were passengers when the Czechs didn’t have the ball. Rosicky, Nedved and Poborsky were all hard-working players, and therefore the Czechs were never outnumbered in midfield.

This team has the honour of winning the finest game of the decade, a 3-2 win over Holland after the Dutch had led 2-0 after 20 minutes. That night demonstrated Bruckner’s attacking instincts wonderfully. At 0-2 down and the defence falling apart, Bruckner prepared a substitution. The right-back, Grygera, was due to be withdrawn, with a winger, Smicer, set to replace him. As the change was readied, the Czechs scored, to make it 1-2. 65 minutes to go, and only a goal down. Did Bruckner still make the switch? Of course he did.

That gave the Czechs the majority of possession, but they couldn’t score another. And then Bruckner went even further, taking off the holding midfielder Galasek on 62 minutes and putting on Marek Heinz, another forward. And so the Czechs had three forwards, four attacking midfielders, another winger at full-back, and two centre-backs. The most remarkable thing? The Czechs had won their opening game, whilst the Dutch had drawn. This wasn’t do-or-die: a draw would have suited the Czechs fine.

But Bruckner refused to settle for a draw, and his side equalised through Baros. The game of the decade was won two minutes from time, Poborsky unselfishly teeing up Smicer, and the Czechs had qualified from that competition’s Group of Death with a game to spare.

Bruckner changed the whole side for the final game, against a German side needing a win to progress. And, incredibly, confidence in the camp was so high that the Czechs still beat the Germans.

They breezed past Denmark 3-0 in the quarter-finals, before coming up against Greece. And, of course, that was where it all went wrong. Nedved (who was the European Footballer of the Year at the time) having to leave the game through injury after 40 minutes remains one of the most frustrating moments of modern times, for he was the heartbeat of this team.

And, of course, his teammates didn’t get there either. 52% of possession and 16 of the game’s 23 shots was not enough – the Czechs couldn’t score, and the only meaningful ’silver goal’ in history settled the game.

Pretty much the same XI turned up for World Cup 2006, and they started with a convincing defeat of USA, but red cards against both Ghana and Italy were their downfall, and they were sent packing. By Euro 2008 they were over-the-hill. They failed to qualify from the weakest group ahead of the 2010 World Cup, and the 2004 glory team are a distant memory.

On an entirely personal note, this was my favourite team of the decade – watch them coming from behind against Holland in that incredible game that featured 36 shots, 21 of them on target.

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