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|EURO 2012 Preview: Czech Republic|
The Czech Republic are one of those teams that always seem to enjoy throwing the rulebook away come major championships. For a country that has boasted international stars such as Pavel Nedved, Jan Koller and Karel Poborsky, they have only qualified for one World Cup in the last 20 years and have had extremely mixed results in the Euros.
In fairness though, it's not a bad effort for a side has only properly existed since 1994, when Czechoslovakia disbanded into Slovakia and the Czech Republic. As Czechoslovakia there was a medium amount of success, particularly in Europe, where they claimed the 1976 crown. However since the disbandment, Czech fans have felt the elation of making the final of Euro 96, coupled with the bitter disappointment of failing to make it past the Group Stage in 2008 after conceding two calamitous late goals against Turkey.
After failing to make the last World Cup, it's fair to say that Czech fans are keen to get back to winning ways. They started their bid for Euro 2012 in disasterous fashion, losing 1-0 to Lithuania, but bounced back with wins over Scotland and Liechtenstein. World champions Spain then brushed them aside in the next game but Czechs got another win over Liechtenstein to steady the ship.
Next, in a crunch match for a play-off spot, the Czechs took on Scotland away from home and were only saved from a 2-1 loss by a blatant dive by Jan Rezek that gifted them a last-minute penalty. Left-back Michal Kadlec duly slotted it, earning a vital point and all but sealing the play-off spot. They confirmed it with a thumping 4-1 win over Lithuania and drew Montenengro in the two-legged play-off for qualification, which they cruised through with a 2-0 win at home and a 1-0 win away in Podgorica.
Despite gaining qualification, head coach Michal Bilek and manager Vladimir Smicer are still under huge pressure from fans and the Czech FA, with many not happy with how the team has performed. Fortunately for Bilek, the playing group seem firmly behind him, with criticism actually moulding the group closer together into a very loyal and tight knit group. That being said, a recent poll in the Czech Republic had a whopping 96% disapproval on Bilek and his style of management so a poor showing at the championships could spell the end of his reign.
But with top quality players like Tomas Rosicky, Petr Cech and Milan Baros they will always have a chance of silencing the critics. Rosicky in particular may have had an up and down spell at Arsenal, but make no mistake of his prowess. In the Czech shirt he is an inspirational leader and their creative mastermind. If he is able to find his range and repeat some of his performances of previous Euro championships then they could take some stopping.
Still, if there was ever a team capable of going against the grain and being a total enigma, it's the Czech Republic. They seem to excel when there are no expectations of them, and fold when they are seemingly on fire. The first few games will be even more crucial than usual to their chances and will set the tone for the rest of their tournament. If they can find some form early they could be a surprise packet, but if they struggle from the get go then expect them to go home with barely a whimper.
PLAYER TO WATCH: MICHAL KADLEC
It's not very often that a defender finishes a qualifying campaign as the side's leading goalscorer, but that's exactly what left-back Michal Kadlec achieved.
Admittedly three of his four strikes came courtesy of the penalty spot, but there is no doubting how important the 27-year-old is to the Nároďák.
As well as being able to hold his nerve and take penalties in pressure situations, Kadlec is an experienced defender currently plying his trade with Bundesliga team Bayer Leverkusen. His expertise helped Leverkusen to get through the group stages into the Round of 16, and though they were eventually annihilated by a rampant Barcelona, Kadlec personally didn't disgrace himself on that night.
The other aspect of Kadlec's game is his ability to get forward and become a genuine attacking threat. The current Czech team isn’t blessed with the attacking riches of old, and really lack top class attacking options. The 27-year-old was able to provide another layer to the side's attack in qualifying with his marauding runs down the line, as well as allow more creative players such as Tomas Rosicky and Vaclav Pilar to find space and be far more involved in the game.
If the Czechs are to progress deep into the tournament, head coach Michal Bilek will need his man to be on top form to help put the goals away while keeping the ball out at the other end.
TOM'S PREDICTION: Have a good chance of getting through Group Stage, but won't go any further