Czech Republic v Portugal preview
This is a battle between two reasonably similar teams. They may play different formations, but they have the same problems – and, most interestingly, will look to play down the same flank.
9 and 10?
The first similarity the lack of a prolific number nine. Milan Baros and Helder Postiga have both started all three games, but Milan Baros has had two shots in the competition (no goals) and Helder Postiga has had three (one goal). They’re simply not a consistent goal threat, and the main part of their job is holding the ball up, drawing fouls and linking with the wide players.
The second similarity is the absence of a creative attacking midfielder. We knew this about Portugal before the competition started, but for the Czechs it’s a new development. Tomas Rosicky’s injury means he’ll probably be on the bench tonight, and replacement Daniel Kolar struggles to replicate Rosicky’s impact upon matches.
The creative midfield battle will be decided primarily by the two ’second function’ midfielders – not the holders, Miguel Veloso and Tomas Hubschman, but the men just ahead. Jaroslav Plasil has enjoyed a good tournament, creating 14 chances in three games, while Joao Moutinho was excellent against Holland and should get time on the ball here.
It’s difficult to see who will close down Moutinho - Petr Jiracek will be concerned about Coentrao, Hubschman will protect the space in front of the back four, particularly the zone Cristiano Ronaldo wants to move into. Moutinho should be free, and will dictate the tempo of the game.
The key battle is likely to be down the left flank. This is Portugal’s biggest strength going forward – they have the goalscoring potential of Ronaldo coming inside, and the overlapping threat of Fabio Coentrao bombing down the outside. But this means they’re also weak defensively down that side: all four goals they’ve conceded have originated from that side of the pitch, and Ronaldo’s non-tracking against Denmark was a problem Paulo Bento should have resolved earlier.
As it happens, the right has been the strongest area of the Czech side. Petr Jiracek has been excellent on the wing since he was switched there midway through the opening game against Russia, although he played two different roles in the subsequent games – he drifted inside quickly against Greece, but stayed much wider against Poland. He managed to score in both games, but it seems better for the balance of the side if he comes inside, so Theodor Gebre-Selassie can energetically stretch the play from deep.
Gebre-Selassie has been one of the competition’s best attacking full-backs, and while he’s in for the most difficult defensive test of his life up against Ronaldo, Michal Bilek will probably encourage him to move forward and test Ronaldo’s defensive positioning. You can’t leave that position bare against Ronaldo, of course, so Hubschman should be able to drift across and cover, potentially allowing the Czechs to create a 2 v 1 situation against Coentrao. Moutinho, unlikely to be concerned about forward runs from Hubschman, may have to help out.
But Jiracek is a hard worker without the ball, and he’ll track Coentrao back. With the support of Hubschman, the Czechs might fare reasonably well against the strongest part of the Portuguese side, although Ronaldo remains a huge threat.
Portugal might even be better switching the ball out to Nani – both Moutinho and Veloso are capable of good crossfield passes to that side, where the Manchester United winger should be able to take on David Limbersky in a 1 v 1 situation. Limbersky is inexperienced at this level, though he played well against Jakub Blaszczykowski in the Czechs’ previous game.
The final part of the battle on the flanks will be Vaclav Pilar against Joao Pereira. Pilar plays an interesting role, staying very wide and then looking to run in behind the full-back onto through-balls. Does Pereira stay narrow and shut off that space, risking Pilar getting the ball into feet too easily, or stick tight and risk being outpaced on the turn?
This might not be the most open game – both sides are broadly counter-attacking, and want their wingers to run with the ball. Both thrive when they have space to run into – Bilek and Bento will probably want their sides to sit deep early on, to stifle each other.