Czechs, Bilek relishing underdog role
The Czech Republic was awful in qualifying for Euro 2012. They were stodgy and dull, and extremely fortunate with a penalty decision at either end when they got away with a 2-2 draw away to Scotland. The Czechs arrived at the Euros with many suggesting they could be the worst team in the tournament. Certainly it looked that way when they lost their first match 4-1 to Russia. But the Czechs came back with wins over Greece and Poland and now they face Portugal in Thursday’s quarterfinal.
This is not a complete shock. The Czechs showed flickers towards the end of qualifying, and there were suggestions that a team was coming together. With Tomas Hubschman, the Shakhtar Donetsk anchor, suspended for the playoff against Montenegro, Michel Bilek, the Czech coach, was forced to use Petr Jarosik and Jaroslav Plasil at the back of midfield in a 4-2-3-1, with Tomas Rosicky making the play ahead of them. And in that first leg, Rosicky started to hint at a return to form after years of injury misery. By the following February, he was a transformed man at Arsenal, playing a significant part in its comeback from 2-0 down in the north London derby against Tottenham.
The Czechs generally looked more comfortable and cohesive in that playoff. There was a neatness and a zip to their passing and movement. They may only have won 3-0 on aggregate, but the Czech Republic controlled those games. The problem, in a sense, was that the Czechs were almost too good. Bilek felt compelled to leave Hubschman out and keep the same shape in the tournament.
Russia, though, provided a very different threat to that posed by Montenegro. Even then, the Czechs looked good on the ball; it was just that, without any natural ball-winner in front of the back four, they were horribly exposed at the back. By half-time the Czechs were 2-0 down. On came Hubschman and the Czechs improved. Jan Rezek pulled one back.
But the momentum was against them and two moments of defensive dilatoriness — and two uncharacteristic errors from Chelsea’s Petr Cech — cost the Czechs two further goals. A 4-1 defeat looked horrible but the pattern of the game hadn’t been that bad; with Hubschman returned the issue was avoiding individual errors. Hubschman’s return meant Jiracek shifting to the right. It’s an unfamiliar position for him – he tends to play centrally for Wolfsburg - but he has reveled in it as that flank has proved the Czechs’ most profitable avenue of attack.
Theodor Gebre Selassie made headlines before the tournament as being the first black player to play for the Czech Republic. He is the son of an Ethiopian father and a Czech mother and has, sadly but predictably, faced opposition from far right groups who claim a black player cannot be truly Czech.
“I feel sorry about that,” he said. “I can’t see what they’re talking about. I was born in the Czech Republic and have been living here ever since. Last time I was in Ethiopia was when I was two years old. There was some unrest and my father, a doctor, had to come back home to help. I don’t speak Amharic, I feel Czech, so what is the fuss about? If I came here aged fifteen, I could maybe understand their reasons, but still I would have a choice.”
In the tournament he has caught the eye for his surging runs from fullback. It was his run and low cross that teed up the second goal for Vaclav Pilar in the Czechs’ 2-1 victory over Greece in their second game and he was heavily involved from an attacking point of view against Poland in the third as well. Facing up against Cristiano Ronaldo on Thursday, there may be greater focus on the defensive side of his game, but Ronaldo doesn’t track and that means that that flank, the Czech right and the Portuguese left represents an opportunity.
Bilek began the tournament a remarkably unpopular figure. He was jeered by fans even during the win over Greece. His players, though, are firmly behind him, as they proved by chanting his name after the win over Poland.
“We offer each other mutual support and that's why we stick together,” said Bilek. “We've gone through because we work as a team. It was definitely a pleasant feeling to hear the players chanting my name. We've qualified and we're all pulling in the same direction.”
Bilek has been outspoken in his support of Milan Baros, the much criticized center forward. Only six players have scored more goals than him in European Championship history and yet, despite being just 30, the last of his five came eight years ago.
Baros’ lack of form could mean a chance for the lanky Tomas Pekhart, a target-man who was on Tottenham’s books as a teenager and played nine games on loan at Southampton before moving to Nurnberg. CSKA Moscow’s Tomas Necid is experienced for a 22 year old with 26 senior caps, but he is yet to score this year and hasn’t regained his form since a knee injury last year. The other option is David Lafata, top-scorer in the Czech league in 2010-11. Bilek so far, though, has seemed happy to stick with the diligent if clumsy Baros.
“We've been under constant pressure. This may have been our advantage [against Poland] on Saturday," Bilek said. "In those two-and-a-half years, we have always managed to overcome the critical moments, and there have been quite a few. We found ourselves under huge pressure all the time, the players always fought and beat the crises, and in the hard games they showed huge moral strength.
“I can feel a healthy spirit and the desire to put up a good fight in the games we are facing,” Bilek added. “We want to win at least one more game. If we make it, we'll have a medal.”
If they do, it would be a medal that almost nobody predicted.