By Mark Robinson.
The purpose built stadium in Aveiro is the setting for this afternoon’s first Euro 2004 Group D match between the Czech Republic and Latvia.
The two teams arrived in Portugal with contrasting ambitions and expectations.
The Czechs are many pundits’ choice to emulate their heroics of Euro 96, when they surprised everyone by reaching the final before bravely going down to Oliver Bierhoff’s golden goal at the hands of Germany.
Latvia are widely considered the weakest of the qualifiers for this year’s tournament, though a gutsy 1-0 win in Sweden to clinch a playoff place, looks a very good result indeed in light of the Swedes’ rampant display last night against Bulgaria.
The win in Stockholm clinched a playoff place, and Latvia’s performance in defeating Turkey over two legs in the playoffs sent shock waves throughout European football.
In spite of the Latvians’ giant killing reputation, few observers will give them much of a chance this afternoon. With Group D already christened as the ‘Group of Death’, the Czechs will realise that only three points will do in their quest to finish in the top two. With Germany and Holland squaring up this evening in the group’s other match, a win today will see the Czechs pile the pressure on their illustrious rivals for quarter-final qualification.
Czech coach Karel Bruckner, the former coach of the Under-21 side and former national team assistant, oversaw a ruthlessly efficient qualifying stage with the occasional glimpse of breathtaking attacking football. Seven wins and one draw from eight games, with a gaol difference of plus 18 proved far too much for their rivals and consigned the mighty Holland to the playoffs.
His squad contains a blend of old and new. There are the survivors from the 1996 adventure and a new generation of talent, some of whom were part of the Under-21 side that lifted the European Championship two years ago. Bruckner’s assistant coach in Portugal will be Miroslav Beranek, who coached the Under-21s to that memorable success.
Herein lies one of the strengths of the Czech set up – familiarity and continuity between players and staff. Known in the Czech Republic as ‘The Magnus’ due to his white hair and seemingly mystical powers, Bruckner has so far made a mockery of those critics who doubted he could succeed due to his lack of coaching experience at club level both home and abroad.
Bruckner has already warned his players against complacency for this afternoon’s game.
“There are no easy games at finals tournaments,” he said. “We will go into the game without fear, but we will respect every opponent regardless of which pot they came from in the draw.”
Bruckner’s side will line up as a flexible 4-4-2, with the midfield particularly strong in terms of tactical awareness, technical ability and flair. Led by reigning European Footballer of the Year Pavel Nedved of Juventus, the Czechs have a midfield to rival any in the competition.
Genuinely two-footed, Nedved combines pace and skill with an almost unrivalled work rate down the left flank. His form in an inconsistent Juventus team has not been as spectacular this season, but he is undoubtedly a man for the big occasion as his performances in Euro 96 testify.
The Czech superstar is not fooled by the media’s insistence that the Latvians represent easy fodder for his talented side.
“There are no weak teams at this tournament. Look at Portugal’s result against Greece.We have worked hard for two years and cannot afford to ignore any details now,” he argued.
Nedved will be partnered in midfield by the talented and creative Tomas Rosicky, who for many years has been expected to pick up Nedved’s mantle. Eight years younger than his team mate, Rosicky has long been seen as the golden boy of Czech football and was labelled ‘Little Mozart’ in the Czech press shortly after his breakthrough at Sparta Prague. This season has been one of his worst in the Bundesliga and Rosicky will be eager to restore his reputation and earn a possible move to England.
Karel Poborsky will start on the right wing, ensuring that two survivors from Euro 96 will feature in the Czech midfield. After a short lived and ordinary spell at Manchester United, he found his feet once more with Lazio and Benfica before returning to the Czech league in 2002.
Poborsky’s 91 caps and leadership skills will certainly benefit the younger players. Tomas Galasek, the protector of the back four and ball winner, completes the midfield. Bruckner has often referred to Galasek as his most important player, with his industry enabling the artistry of Nedved and Rosicky to prosper.
The gigantic Jan Koller, also of Dortmund, and Liverpool’s young starlet Milan Baros will lead the Czech forward line. Koller is surprisingly good with his feet for such an enormous man, an aspect of his play that often goes unnoticed. The quicksilver Baros, part of the Under-21 winning side, will look to feed off Koller, and he is remarkably strong for his size. He will get the nod over his club colleague Vladimir Smicer, so disappointing in the Premiership but the proud owner of 66 caps and 24 international goals.
The Czechs’ defence will be organised and protected by the Chelsea bound goalkeeper Petr Cech. Cech will join Chelsea from French club Rennes after the tournament in one of the biggest deals ever brokered for a goalkeeper. The 22-year-old is widely seen as the best young goalkeeper in the world, and will be keen to enhance his reputation at the finals.
“For me we must go through to the next stage,” says Cech.
“It is our absolute minimum requirement because we want to show the world why we qualified so well for the finals. We know how hard this group will be, but we are prepared to fight.”
The questions the Czechs must answer is in defence, where the right back Zdenek Grygera is struggling for first team football at Ajax and central defender Tomas Ujfalusi has faced a long lay off with a troublesome knee injury.
Latvia coach Aleksanders Starkovs has become increasingly frustrated at suggestions that his side will merely be happy to be taking part, and are only at the finals to make up the numbers.
“Only a draw or a win will be considered a good result for Latvia,” Starkovs claimed.
“When you play for your national team you play for your country and its flag. Because of that we can even make it out of the group. Latvia are not usually considered favourites, but if you look at our results in recent years you will realise that we are not outsiders but a team of character.”
A solid base and a 4-4-2 formation will be the main feature of the Latvian line up. Formerly coached by Yeovil Town boss Gary Johnson, who remains on the coaching staff as a consultant, Starkovs has added Eastern European technique to a distinctly English core.
Former Crystal Palace goalkeeper Alex Kolinko is now his country’s undisputed number one, and will pass 50 caps during the tournament. He has claimed that facing Nedved, Baros, Rosicky, Van Nistelrooy, Van der Vaart, Ballack and Kuranyi in the next few days does not phase him, but he will be kept busy.
The Latvian back four will be equally occupied, and with the possible exception of the Italians they will be the most experienced unit at the finals. The first choice four, if staying fully fit, will boast more than 250 caps between them. Augmented by Kolinko’s total, it suggests that even if outclassed the Latvian back four will not be overawed.
The midfield will be orchestrated by the skipper and 100 cap Vitalijs Astafjevs, and Valentins Lobanovs. They will protect the back four, thus enabling the speedy wingers Andrejs Rubins (another former Crystal Palace player and scorer of a memorable League Cup Semi Final goal against Liverpool in 2001) and Imants Bleidelis to surge forward in support of the strikers.
Up front, Southampton’s Marian Pahars and Dynamo Kiev’s Maris Verpakovskis are expected to start, provided Pahars has shaken off his injury worries and attains some kind of match fitness. Once considered one of the Premiership’s best young forwards, a cruel run of injuries and the rise of James Beattie has limited his appearances over the last eighteen months, but he remains his country’s most famous export and leading scorer.
That mantle may soon be passed over to Verpakovskis, however, who in his partner’s absence has shot to prominence. Leading scorer in the qualifiers, Verpakovskis scored the winner in the crucial 1-0 win in Sweden and then hit two of his country’s goals in the 3-2 aggregate win over Turkey in the playoffs. He and Pahars will be deputised by powerful Maccabi Tel Aviv forward Andrejs Prohorenkovs, who will probably get the nod if Pahars is not passed as match fit.
Czech Republic (probable): Cech; Jankulovski, Ujfalusi, Bolf, Grygera; Nedved, Rosicky, Galasek, Poborsky; Koller, Baros
Latvia (probable): Kolinko; Isakovs, Zemlinskis, Stepanovs, Blagonadezdins; Bleidelis, Lobanovs, Astafjevs, Rubins; Pahars, Verpakovskis
Referee: G Veissiere (Fra)