Euro 2012 preview: Czech Republic
Michal Bilek hasn’t been particularly popular during his time as Czech Republic coach, but he has assembled a well-organised, functional side that mixes experience with youth.
The three star names are the trio who featured prominently in the superb Czech side that might have won Euro 2004 were it not for Pavel Nedved’s cruel injury in the semi-final – Milan Baros upfront, Tomas Rosicky as the playmaker, and Petr Cech in goal. It’s a solid spine, but if the Czechs are to spring a surprise, it will be because of the younger, more mobile players located on the flanks.
“I’d characterise our system as a 4-2-3-1,” says Bilak. “But the system is not as important as how the players are able to carry it out. The advantage of this system is that it creates a strong midfield, and that there are fast and skilful players on the wings who can support Baros.”
In terms of the starting XI, this one of the more difficult sides to predict. Although the 4-2-3-1 seems certain (despite Bilas trying a 4-2-2-2 in qualifying) a number of versatile players mean positions are up for grabs.
Cech is a sure starter in goal. Ahead of him, it now seems likely that Michal Kadlec, often used at left-back, will move inside to partner Tomas Sivok, a traditional centre-back who is very good in the air. That would mean David Limbersky playing on the left of the defence – he’s a much more attacking player than Kadlec, and also quicker. He can play the ball with both feet, and could be an attacking threat moving forward from deep positions. On the other side, Theodor Gebre Selassie is also an attack-minded player and should be given license to get forward.
Perhaps the main debate is about the two players is in the centre of midfield. Tomas Hubschman, another who was in the Euro 2004 squad, started the majority of qualification games, and is the best true holding midfielder in the squad. He plays that role excellently for Shakhtar Donetsk, and on paper should be sure starter. Yet when he was suspended for the away game against Lithuania and the play-offs against Montenegro, Bilek had to start with a double pivot of Petr Jiracek and Jaroslav Plasil. Suddenly, the side looked better – more fluid, more open, more energetic in the centre of midfield, and that combination will probably start here.
Plasil had previously been used higher up, but being brought back into the deeper role he plays at Bordeaux has suited him. He sees more of the ball, and breaks forward to join the front four. Jiracek plays a more reserved role, and his movement to pick up possession is often out to the left side (he’s very obviously left-footed) particularly when the defence are trying to work the ball forward – he tests how much the opposition central midfielders are happy to move to the flanks and track him. The two holding players work extremely hard to get into space and receive a pass, which makes the entire side look very energetic.
This assumes that Rosicky is fit, which seems likely, although he has missed the pre-tournament friendlies with injury. His direct replacement, Daniel Kolar, is very much a step down – and if Bilek finds himself without Rosicky, he will surely consider moving Plasil forward again, and play Hubschman after all. That would make the Czechs both less creative and less mobile, so the availability of Rosicky is vital.
Pace out wide
The two wide players will probably be Vaclav Pilar on the left and Jan Rezek on the right. They play broadly similar roles – they’re both very direct and look to break forward quickly towards goal, supporting Baros as quickly as possible.
Baros is clinging onto the lone striker position, despite competition from players eight years younger, Tomas Necid and Tomas Pekhart. Baros used to rely on knock-downs from Jan Koller but now has to fend for himself, and he spends a lot of time dropping deep to hold up the ball, and also moving into the channels where his movement is good. He also makes clever runs towards the near post at set-pieces, but he hasn’t been in the goals recently, and the Czech’s top scorer in qualification was Kadlec – the top scoring defender in the entire qualification process, mainly thanks to three penalties.
A little like Russia, the Czechs are relying on a core of players who have recently appeared together at club level. Limbersky, Rezek, Pilar and Jiracek all play for, or used to play for, Viktoria Plzen. ”It would have been be stupid if we had not made the most of that,” says general manager Vladimir Smicer.
This is not an attacking side, but they are relatively direct. Cech often thumps the ball downfield quickly towards Baros (despite the fact he’s nothing like a target man), and Baros is quickly supported by two wide forwards on either side, plus Rosicky lurking just behind in the hole.
It’s difficult to see what Bilek’s side truly excel at. However, their energy and mobility, particularly on the flanks, is impressive – and against Russia and Greece, two sides who have immobile defences, they could pick up results.
Coach – Michal Bilek
Formation – 4-2-3-1
Key player – Tomas Rosicky
Strength – pace down the flanks
Weakness – a lack of goals
Key tactical question – the midfield combination, and the type of player used in that midfield trio
Key quote – Bilek: “The advantage of this system is that it creates a strong midfield, and that there are fast and skilful players on the wings who can support Baros.”
Betfair odds – 90.0 (89.1)
Recommended bets: Kadlec to be Czech top scorer at 9.0