Anyone around here an expert in Czech football? Anyone? No? Ok, let's assign this preview to the Slovakia expert! It's all the same, right?
Ha. The Nároďák, at least, didn't embarrass themselves in Euro 2012 qualification...although they did manage to lose to Lithuania (which is nowhere near as bad as the 4-0 thrashing the Slovaks experienced at the feet of Armenia) . The Czechs finished second in Group I, behind the perfect Spain, but above the world football powers of Scotland, Lithuania and Lichtenstein. They managed just 13 points from the group, above only Montenegro of the countries that qualified for the playoffs, and then beat the aforementioned side 3-0 on aggregate.
And so to Poland and Ukraine, where the Czech side have managed to land in the fairly weak Group A, amidst Poland, Greece and Russia. Poland, of course, earned an automatic spot in the tournament, while the others finished first in groups that were among the tightest in qualification. The Czechs might not have a star-studded squad, but their draw might enable them to emerge from the group stages.
Michal Bílek took an aging squad through much of the qualification matches, a squad which won just half their matches, scoring just 12 goals in the eight games played. And then came the infamous Scotland match, in which Jan Rezek blatantly dived to earn a last minute penalty, converted by Michal Kadlec to earn a point for the Czechs. Bílek used a mixture of experienced and inexperienced players in that squad, with fine results overshadowed by that dive.
That's the sort of squad he's taking to the tournament, a squad similar to the one that beat Lithuania 4-1 in the final group game and demolished Montenegro 3-0 in the playoffs. There's a couple names that even the least-informed Euro 2012 fan will recognise: Petr Čech is one of the top goalkeepers in the world, and his help in winning Chelsea the Champions League isn't going to make his rugby-helmeted self any less likely to fade into the background. Most observers are also likely to know captain Tomáš Rosický, who regained his form in the second half of the Arsenal season, and will be essential in midfield.
Then there are the players that only those with expertise in the Czech domestic league will likely have heard of. Bílek raided Viktoria Plzeň when selecting players, choosing five from the club which finished in third place this season. The most impressive of these Czech-based players is already on his way up: Wolfsburg signed Václav Pilař in January, but left him on loan in the country to continue preparing for the tournament. Pilař just might be the one to lift the Czechs further in the tournament, tearing up the left flank or cutting inside to take a shot.
Projected Lineup (4-2-3-1)
Petr Čech; Theo Gebre Selassie, Tomáš Sivok, Michal Kadlec, David Limbersky; Tomáš Hübschman, Jaroslav Plašil; Jan Rezek, Tomáš Rosický, Václav Pilař; Milan Baroš
(Thanks to Chris Boothroyd for this information)
Player to Watch
Tomáš Rosický. Predictable choice, yes, but the captain is vital to this Czech side, most of whom are plying their wares in the domestic league or Eastern Europe. While not all of us fall prey to the party line that England is the best league in the world, having a few players with top club experience certainly helps sides progress in the tournament.
And so the Czechs turn to Rosický, hoping he'll manage to stay fit, and to continue the sparkling form he displayed at the end of the Arsenal season. The 31-year-old playmaker has 85 caps for his country and 20 goals, but more than experience, he brings cohesiveness to the side. Nicknamed the "Little Mozart," the Nároďák are guided by Rosický's ability to dictate play and unlock tight defences.
Not even the most foolhardy Czech supporter will be telling you that the side will win the tournament, or even progress beyond the knockout rounds. They'll likely get out of the group, but that's about all that can be expected.