Euro 2012 Preview: 8 Things to Know About the Czech Republic
It may feel far away, but the reality is that Euro 2012 is just around the corner.
In just over a month, the world's greatest international football competition (after the World Cup) will return after a four year hiatus.
Among all the heavyweights competing in this summer's competition, one team that has been flying under the radar is the Czech Republic.
Lead by captain Tomas Rosicky, the Czech Republic finished second in Group I in Euro 2012 qualification, and secured qualification via a 3-0 playoff aggregate victory against Montenegro.
What should we expect of the Czech Republic this summer? How far can they go, and who will be the ones to take them there?
Who are their star players who can make a difference in the team's results?
Those questions and more will be addressed in the coming slides.
Golden Era: 2004-06
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Most national teams have a golden era that dates back to the mid-1900s or slightly later.
But not the Czech Republic.
For a national team that only played its first friendly in 1994, the Czech Republic's golden era is much more recent.
After just barely missing out on World Cup 2002 qualification, the Czechs began to develop a national team filled with world-class talent.
Veterans like Pavel Nedved and Jan Koller provided the Czechs with veteran leadership and ability, while Tomas Rosicky, Milan Baros, Marek Jankolovski, Tomas Ujfalusi and Petr Cech ensured that the team was loaded with talent across the pitch.
The team was unbeaten in 2002 and 2003, scoring 53 goals in 19 games, and easily qualifying for Euro 2004 in the process. The Czech Republic went on a 20-game unbeaten streak that finally came to an end in Dublin on March 31st, 2004, in a friendly match against the Republic of Ireland.
At Euro 2004, the Czech Republic secured three come-from-behind victories in the group stage, including wins over both the Netherlands and Germany, but was eventually stopped by the ultra-defensive Greece side that would go on to win the entire competition.
The high point of the Czech Republic's golden era arrived in 2005, when the team finished second in Group 1 in UEFA FIFA World Cup qualification, and beat Norway 2-0 in the playoffs to compensate for their loss to Belgium in the 2002 World Cup playoffs.
Unfortunately, injuries to star strikers Koller and Baros severely hurt the team's ability to score goals in the tournament, and a loss to Italy in the final match of the World Cup group stages in 2006 meant the Czechs exited the competition early.
The team's golden age would come to a close at the end of the 2006 World Cup, when Pavel Nedved decided to call time on his international career.
Though it wasn't a golden age as bright as the golden age of the bigger countries of Europe, it was highly impressive. The Czech Republic were ranked as the second-best national team in the world in 2005 and 2006 by FIFA, and ranked No. 1 by the Elo rating system in June 2004 and 2005.
Captain: Tomas Rosicky
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Nowadays, captain Tomas Rosicky is at the center of everything good for the Czech Republic's national team.
Rosicky himself has had quite the up-and-down career, but Czech fans will be happy that their talisman has hit top form for Arsenal just in time for the Euros.
His stats are still not as impressive as they were prior to the 2008-09 season, when a hamstring issue forced Rosicky to miss an entire season.
Nevertheless, anyone who watched Rosicky in the second leg of Arsenal's Champions League matchup with AC Milan knows that the Czech can put on a magnificent display when called upon.
He may not be quite as famous as Chelsea's Petr Cech, but he'll be the Czech Republic's key man and playmaker in Poland and Ukraine.
Goalscorer: Milan Baros
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The current incarnation of the Czech national team is one that is unfortunately low on goals.
After Tomas Rosicky, the team's next leading goalscorer is left-back Michal Kadlec, who has seven goals.
Needless to say, the team's leading goalscorer, Milan Baros, will be relied upon to provide the bulk of his national team's goals, whether they progress beyond the group stage or not.
But with 40 goals in 87 national games, its a fairly safe bet that Baros will score in these Euros.
Baros has had a decent season with Galatasaray, contributing eight goals and nine assists in 27 matches.
He's no longer the team's first or even second scoring option, but he still gets the job done in a fairly competitive league, and unfortunately faces little opposition for his spot in the national team squad.
Still, at the age of 30, and no longer at the height of his powers, this may be one of the last opportunities for Baros to make a real impact for his national team.
Rising Talent: Undecided
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One of the biggest disadvantages for the Czech Republic heading into this tournament will be the lack of an up-and-coming star capable of invigorating the squad when the usual stars (Rosicky and Baros) are unable to provide the magic for their team.
In fact, the Czech Republic will likely bring one of the oldest squads to the tournament this summer.
The team has only two players under the age of 25 in their latest squad. One is 23-year-old Vaclav Pilar of Viktoria Plzen; the other is 22-year-old Tomas Pekhart of Nürnberg.
While I'd love to herald Pekhart as the next big star for the Czech Republic, it's hard to do so when the striker has scored zero goals in his first nine caps.
His 17 goals in 26 U-21 caps with his country are very impressive, but they're borderline meaningless at this stage of Pekhart's career. However, his nine goals and five assists in a solid Bundesliga campaign do give hope that he'll be able to produce at the Euros for the Czechs.
Other potential break-out starts for the Czech Republic are Libor Kozak (22) of Lazio and Vaclav Kadlec (19) of Sparta Prague.
22-year-old Tomas Necid, who already has 25 caps and seven national team goals, is another name to consider, though he's been scoreless in 13 games with CSKA Moscow, going all the way back to June 2011. Moreover, is badly out-of-favor at this point, following his inability to recover from a knee injury.
Coach: Michal Bilek
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Michal Bilek's name isn't one you should recognize.
The manager of the Czech Republic national team is very much a local product, having spent practically his entire career in the Czech Republic (or Czechoslovakia).
His claim to fame is his performance at the 1990 FIFA World Cup, when he scored twice for Czechoslovakia, once against the United States in a 5-1 mauling of the Americans, and once in a tight 1-0 victory over Austria.
He's been the manager of the national team since 2009, when his former boss, Ivan Hasek, resigned following his failure to take the Czechs to the World Cup.
So far, Bilek hasn't done an amazing job, but he's at least managed to take a team lacking in talent to the Euros, which is a commendable achievement in and of itself.
Presently, there's really not much on which to judge him, but his performance at the Euros with the Czech Republic will be big in determining just how good of a manager he really is.
Group A Level of Difficulty: Easy
Maybe the biggest advantage that the Czech Republic will have heading into this tournament is that their group is easily the easiest of the tournament.
Poland and Russia were both the weakest teams in Pot 1 and Pot 2, yet the pair got placed in the same group together, to the Czech Republic's benefit.
Even Greece, whose squad looks nothing like the one that shocked Euro 2004, shouldn't pose too much of a threat to the Czechs.
Ranking-wise, Russia and Greece are ranked as the 11th and 14th best countries in the world according to the FIFA World Ratings, but at least in the case of Greece, that's a very generous ranking.
Nevertheless, it'd be wrong to say the Czech Republic will ease past any of these four teams. With the lack of new blood, the Czech Republic could still very easily finish fourth in their group.
The truth is that this is about as easy as it will ever get at a Euro tournament for the Czech Republic. Poland could surprise everyone with the benefit of their home support, but they're everyone's favorite pick to finish last in the tournament.
Similarly, Russia—even with Andrey Arshavin's awkward season—is the favorite for first place.
That'll leave the Czechs to tussle with the Greeks for second.
Observations from Euro 2012 Qualifying
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When a left-back is your leading goalscorer with four goals at the end of eight qualifying games, you know your national team is in bad shape.
The truth of the matter is that even though the Czech Republic qualified for this year's Euros with two solid wins over Montenegro, their quality in qualification was very up-and-down.
The Czech Republic lost to Lithuania in its first qualifying game. And, if it weren't for a 90th-minute penalty against host Scotland, it may have been the Scots competing at this summer's Euros instead of the Czechs.
Through their qualifying campaign, the team lacked a reliable goalscorer, with Milan Baros scoring only a single goal in six games for his country.
That'll need to change before the Euros. Otherwise, the Czech Republic could very easily face the shame of finishing fourth in one of the easiest groups ever assembled at a Euro competition.
Prediction: Third in Group a
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After that analysis of Group A, you probably thought I was going to have the Czech Republic making the knockout stages, didn't you?
The truth is, after a close look at Greece and Czech Republic players, I had to side with Greece as the second team from Group A to make it to the quarterfinals.
Though Greece is indeed a national team in transition, it has more leaders than the Czech Republic national team, and has legitimate up-and-coming talents, whereas there are massive question marks surrounding the Czech Republic's younger players.
Even the Czech's best players, Tomas Rosicky and Milan Baros, both have left their best years behind them and can be considered rotation players at this point.
And when it comes to the coaches, Greece's Fernando Santos has a much more impressive resume than Bilek.
It's not impossible for the Czech Republic to make it out of their group, but I don't see them doing it with the cast they'll be bringing to Poland and Ukraine.
If things go bad enough, they could even find themselves at the bottom of their group after three games.