Czech Republic vs. Italy: 5 Key Battles to Watch
The Czech Republic's clash with Italy looks set to be one of the ties of this World Cup qualifying round, even if the Bohemians are not the force they once were.
The hosts actually have an enviable record against Italy, winning two and losing just one of four matches that the two sides have contested in official competition. Unfortunately, the glory days of Patrik Berger, Karel Poborsky and Pavel Nedved are gone.
Italy are heavily favoured even away from home, and will look to increase their three-point lead over Bulgaria at the top of Group B. The Bulgarians are two points ahead of the Czechs but having played one game more, a win for the home side in this game would see them jump to second, two points behind Cesare Prandelli's Azzurri.
So what are the key battles to watch?
Petr Cech vs. Mario Balotelli
In fives games against Chelsea for Inter and Manchester City, Mario Balotelli has only scored once against Petr Cech—in a 2-1 loss back in 2011—but he'll hope to add to that tally this weekend in Prague.
Italy boss Cesare Prandelli praised his sometimes-troublesome front man after the Azzurri's last game, going so far as to say that it was Super Mario's best he'd played under his tutelage.
"Balotelli played his best game since I’ve been here," said the coach at his press conference after Italy's friendly with San Marino (here in English, via goal.com), before adding: "He must always have this spirit and this hunger. This is the attitude a champion needs to have and he transmitted it to his team-mates."
That game was a friendly and the Milan star played just 40 minutes, so the encounter with the Czechs will require a lot more. But Prandelli is right to highlight Balo's importance to the squad as a whole.
He's a star in every sense of the word. If he performs to the best of his abilities, he'll be a threat on the ball and an inspiration to his teammates—and Cech will have a job trying to stop him. If the veteran Chelsea shot-stopper can thwart Balotelli's attempts, he might undermine the young striker's confidence and in doing so, dull Italy's sharpest threat.
Tomas Rosicky vs. Daniele De Rossi
There's no doubting Tomas Rosicky's skills. Slightly more questionable is the 32-year-old's fitness.
Rosicky will need to be on top form if the Czech's are to beat Italy, as the Arsenal man is their best creative talent. He's had another troubled year fitness-wise, but he did finish the EPL season well and always gives his best for the national team.
Against Italy however, he'll be up against one of the best midfields in the world and might struggle to find the free space and spare moment on the ball he'll need to set a meaningful attack in motion. Daniele De Rossi thrives on denying players like Rosicky, and the Roma man could heap serious qualifying misery on the Czechs by shutting Rosicky out of the game.
Jaroslav Plasil vs. Andrea Pirlo
Like Rosicky, Jaroslav Plasil will have his work cut out for him against this Italy side.
The veteran Bordeaux midfielder is unlikely to be locked in a direct tackling battle with Andrea Pirlo, but he and his Italian counterpart will be looking to pull the strings in the centre of the park, with Plasil playing in a more advanced position, in close proximity to the Italy legend.
Plasil is not a prolific goal-scorer, but his strikes have come in some important matches and this might be an opportunity for the home side's playmaker to upstage Pirlo with what would could a very valuable goal.
He's hit the back of the net just six times in 83 international appearances, but three of those have come against heavyweights Germany, Spain and Turkey in major qualification games. He'd like to add Italy to that list.
Matej Vydra vs. Leonardo Bonucci
Matej Vydra comes to this game in fine form and should feature for the Czechs. The 21-year-old scored 20 goals in the Championship for Watford this season, on loan from Udinese in Serie A. In that time he's also received a call-up to the national side, earning seven caps and scoring twice, both goals coming in a qualifier win over Armenia.
Prandelli experimented with the next generation of Italy stars against San Marino in their last game, but for a crucial tie like this it's going to be business as usual, and that means Leonardo Bonucci at the back.
The Juventus defender might be less high profile than his club-mate Giorgio Chiellini, but he's an equally important part of both the Azzurri and Bianconeri set-ups. His ability to not only win the ball in difficult situations but also to get it out of the danger area is a rare combination and one much-admired in Italy.
Bonucci has what it takes to deny Vydra and get the Italians attacking at the same time.
Michal Bilek vs. Cesare Prandelli
Having come through their youth ranks as a player, Michal Bilek will be on familiar turf at Sparta Prague's Letna Stadium. And having lead the Czech Republic to the Quarterfinals of last summer's European Championships, he'll be comfortable facing tough opposition, too.
All the better for the Czechs, because they'll be up against one of the world's best sides, and will need their coach to be at his brightest.
Both Bilek and his opposite number should favour a 4-3-3 in Prague, so the result could be heavily influenced by the smaller tactical nuances, adaptations and substitutions that the managers employ.
Italy will be typically well-prepared for the game and hard to break down. The core of their side plays together every week with Juventus, and most of the others have been together for years in the national team.
The Azzurri are the more talented of the two squads as well so the onus is on Bilek to outsmart Prandelli somehow. There's a lot to play for on both sides, so this has the makings of a classic battle of wits.