HOW THEY GOT HERE
The Czech Republic began the Euro2012 qualifiers with a hangover from their forgettable 2010 World Cup qualification campaign, which saw neighbours Slovakia board the plane to South Africa, whilst the Czech players were left to ponder what if?
This time, a qualifying group containing World and European champions Spain meant that Scotland, Lithuania and the Czechs would fight it out for second place and a playoff spot. So to begin with a 1-0 home defeat to Lithuania felt as disastrous as it was humiliating. Next up was bonny Scotland, where Craig Levein dropped a clanger by employing a head scratching 4-6-0 formation against a demoralised Czech Republic. The Czechs won 1-0 and were up and running.
Four days later the Czechs won again, this time away in Liechtenstein, as momentum was begining to build. An away trip to Spain appeared daunting but the performance was encouraging, the Czechs took the lead against the World Champions but two goals in three second half minutes from David Villa ensured the Czechs left empty handed. With Lithuania’s form tailing off it was left to Scotland and the Czechs to grab second place. The return game at Hampden Park was tense, eventful and ended in a 2-2 draw courtesy of a late penalty for the Czechs, which Jan Rezek clearly dived to win.
This time lady luck shone on the Czech Republic, as that dive penalty was the pivotal moment in the whole qualification campaign. The group finished with the Czechs taking revenge over Lithuania 4-1 and sealing a playoff matchup with Montenegro. it was the perfect time to play the Montenegrins as they were in upheaval behind the scenes and performed like a shadow of the side that twice held England. The Czechs won both legs with Tomáš Rosický running the game.
Michal Bílek must take some credit for introducing players like Milan Petržela, Petr Jiráček, Theo Gebre Selassie and Václav Pilař to the side. Whilst their inclusion to the squad was obvious, Bílek has found a very effective 4-2-3-1 system, with the impact of these players giving the team a significant boost.
WHY THEY WILL WIN
The Czech players are peaking at the right time. Petr Čech and Tomáš Rosický have remained injury free and are playing some of the best football of their careers. To win any major tournament you need you your top players on form, especially your goalkeeper - just look at the influence Peter Schmeichel had for Denmark in 1992 and Antonios Nikopolidis with Greece in 2004. The Czechs are far from the tournament favourites but if Petr Čech keeps as many clean sheets as possible then they could go all the way.
The European Championships feels like home for the Czech players and fans, they relish this atmosphere, this stage and this tournament. Who doesn’t remember Euro 1996 and that Karel Poborsky chip? And the drama of the penalty shootout against France? The Czechs were 20 minutes away from winning the tournament but Oliver Bierhoff fired two football shaped daggers into their hearts.
Eight years later the Czechs were involved in one of the all time classic European Championship games. The 3-2 victory over the Netherlands is easily my favourite international game of all time for sheer excitement; it was an exhibition of how football should be played and all on the biggest European stage.
Whilst the Czechs may not have as much talent as previous generations, they will believe they belong in Poland and Ukraine and have nothing to lose, so why not go and win it?
WHY THEY WON’T WIN
There still remains a question mark over the leadership of the Czech national team. Michal Bílek is not a coach who looks capable of inspiring and motivating a team of top professional players. It’s almost by luck he has somehow managed to drag his team to Poland and Ukraine. The domestic rise of Viktoria Plzeň has seen the inclusion of Petr Jiráček (now at Wolfsburg), Milan Petržela and Václav Pilař. But the man off the street could have picked these players given the limited depth of talent available to Bílek. Performances under Bílek have ranged from the incomprehensible to the surprisingly cohesive. For every 4-1 victory over Ukraine there is a 3-0 defeat against Norway to counter balance the argument. You just never know which side will turn up. In knockout tournament football this is a recipe for failure.
The lack of a goal scorer is another problem. Milan Baroš has been a loyal servant to his country but his goals have dried up, he couldn’t even muster double figures in the Turkish League for Galatasaray this season. The Milan Baroš of 2004 is a long and distant memory. The quick, lethal predator that was once on the radar of Barcelona has regressed quicker than Alan Shearers hairline. His understudy, Tomas Pekhart is a fine player but has yet to break his duck at International level and looks more like a linkman rather than a natural goal scorer. To win major tournaments you need a clinical finisher who will bag at least five or six goals. Unfortunately, the Czechs cannot tick this box.
WE’VE SEEN BEFORE
Tomáš Rosický has matured as a player since the 2006 World Cup (his last appearance in a major tournament) and will be keen to make amends for missing Euro 2008 due to injury, a recurring theme in his career. His club form over the last few seasons has divided opinion; in fact many Arsenal fans saw the guitar playing Czech as their weak link in midfield. It appeared his 18-month absence to a hamstring injury had seen the playmaker lose his edge, when he returned from the treatment table there was a weakness to his game; he went missing for long periods and lacked confidence on the ball.
But all of these problems have disappeared over the last seven months, as the 31 year-old playmaker has returned to form in spectacular style. Rosický gave Miodrag Dzudovic and Stefan Savic a torrid time over two legs in the playoff against Montenegro. He proved to be almost unplayable as the Czech captain rolled back the years with a virtuoso performance. Qualification for Poland and Ukraine has given the Arsenal midfielder a spring in his step; performances for Arsenal have steadily improved this season, he twice won the Arsenal player of the month at the backend of the season.
Twelve months ago Rosický was a figure of derision among the Arsenal fans and often the focal point of frustration. But recent performances saw Rosický pen a new two-year contract at the Emirates. “I believe he is an exceptional player, a natural footballer who is technically top class,” said a clearly delighted Arsene Wenger "He plays the style of football we champion here and shares completely our philosophy. He is always ready to work for the sake of the club, always willing to put the team first. I have huge respect for him.”
I was hoping to wax lyrical about Ladislav Krejčí, the 19 year-old left winger who plays for Sparta Prague but Michal Bílek played it safe and decided to leave the uncapped, yet immensely talented youngster at home. And so my immediate thoughts then switched to Petr Jiráček. The 26 year-old Czech made his International debut against Scotland during the qualification campaign and has slotted in seamlessly into the heart of the midfield. Jiráček covers every inch of the pitch and then some more, his tireless work rate is infectious and is enhancing his reputation with every passing game, it’s easy to see why Wolfsburg forked out 5m Euros for his services earlier this year.
Jiráček shot to prominence when Viktoria Plzeň won their first league title in 2010/11. He excelled alongside veteran Pavel Horváth in the Plzeň midfield; breaking up play and allowing his side to attack at break neck speed. He greeted every step up in class with consummate ease. With Plzeň he went from Czech football to the Champions League without blinking an eye. Jiráček scored the vital goal in the 1-0 win over Montenegro, ghosting past the home defence and slotting past the keeper with the guile and finesse of a seasoned finisher. Illustrating his attacking ability to compliment his industry and tenacity in the centre of the park.
Without doubt, Petr Jiráček is a big game player and his presence in Poland and Ukraine can only enhance in what promises to be a truly special tournament.
HOW THEY WILL PLAY
It has taken time for Michal Bílek to find a suitable formation and system of play to accommodate his best eleven. But the 4-2-3-1 system gets the best out of his team and a back four of Selassie, Hubnik, Sivok, Kadlec with Čech in goal provide a strong platform. Plašil and Jiráček will operate as holding midfielders, with the trio of Rezek, Rosický and Pilar expected to provide ammunition and support for lone striker Baroš.
Čech is arguably playing the best football of his career right now and needs to have a massive tournament for the Czechs to reach the business end. His experience, form and standing in the squad makes him a vital cog in the Czech Republic machine.
Captain Tomáš Rosický is a player revitalized and much like Čech is a well-respected figure in the squad. His fitness and form will be crucial for the Czechs.
Theo Gebre Selassie is a novice on the International scene but continues to impress and appear unfazed by the opposition in front of him. His quality lies in attack and has established himself as a first team regular despite his inexperience. He could surprise at the tournament.
Other notable mentions should go to Jaroslav Plašil and Tomáš Hübschman who have 110 caps between them. Their experience will be invaluable.
Should Baroš cut a frustrated figure in front of goal then the Czechs have options on the bench. Tomas Pekhart is a rangy agile forward who is plying his trade in the Bundesliga and can be called upon if needed.
But more interestingly, the Czechs have David Lafata and Tomáš Necid as options up front.
Lafata scored 25 goals in 28 appearances for Jablonec this season, a Czech record, but whether or not he can translate this form to the International stage remains to be seen.
Tomáš Necid has been unlucky with various injuries over the last 12-18 months but his inclusion in the 24-man squad shows the faith that Bílek has in the 22-year-old CSKA Moscow striker.
The current Czech Republic kit is available from Kitbag.
Mark is a freelance sports writer based in Prague. You can find him on Twitter @Play_waved_on