As recently as last August, the knives were out for Michal Bilek and the Czech daily newspaper Sport listed “five reasons why the coach should go right now” – among them a lack of respect from the players and little support from the fans. Now, however, with qualification secured and his biggest stars in form, plus an influx of new talent reinvigorating the national squad, the 47-year-old might yet have the last laugh.
In truth, taking 13 points from eight games in qualifying was unimpressive, and of all the second-placed teams only Montenegro – who the Czechs beat in the play-offs – fared worse. But statistics alone are not a fair reflection of Bilek’s achievement or of his side’s chances at Euro 2012. While only the most blinkered fan would back them to win the tournament, they have improved steadily. They may not be the trailblazers of Euro 96 and 2004 but there is still a little room for optimism.
Ever since he took charge in 2009, Bilek has had to face persistent suggestions that his appointment owed more to his friendship with previous coach Ivan Hasek, chairman of the Czech FA at the time, than to managerial ability. But the critics tended to overlook the fact that Bilek had inherited a team that finished behind Slovakia and Slovenia in World Cup qualification and had lost four key players to international retirement: defenders Marek Jankulovski and Tomas Ujfalusi, midfielder Tomas Galasek and all-time leading scorer Jan Koller.
Drawn in a group in which finishing second to Spain presented the only realistic chance of qualification, the Czechs almost pulled off a sensational victory over the defending champions last March, taking a 68th-minute lead through Jaroslav Plasil, only to concede two late David Villa goals.
Displays and results were generally low key, however, and goalless draws with Peru and Japan at last June’s Kirin Cup did little to dispel the lingering gloom, while August’s 3-0 friendly loss in Norway represented a new low.
While all of this had been going on, Bilek had been slowly introducing new blood to his side. In particular, he looked to Viktoria Plzen, whose attractive football had swept the provincial side to the 2011 league title and, incredibly, into the Champions League’s group phase.
Left-back David Limbersky and midfielder Daniel Kolar would be the first of several Plzen players to feature in Bilek’s squad. Most significantly, Petr Jiracek made his debut in the September draw with Scotland that would turn around Czech fortunes and instantly establish the versatile left-sided midfielder. Although secured with a late penalty, won by a blatant Jan Rezek dive, the point was a vital one, leaving the Czechs’ fate in their own hands.
A thumping win in Lithuania secured a place in the play-offs, where a 3-0 aggregate win over Montenegro confirmed the strengths of Bilek’s new blend. Unfortunately, the sweetness of qualification was soured somewhat by a drunken post-match celebration, captured
on video, in which a number of players joined in a chant of “Radek Drulak has no dick” – a response to the striker-turned-pundit’s criticism of the team – resulting in heavy fines.
A more serious concern is a lack of goals. Bizarrely, left-back Michal Kadlec was the leading scorer in qualification, his four goals (three of them penalties) more than the combined total of strikers Milan Baros, Tomas Pekhart, Tomas Necid and David Lafata. Bilek seems intent on using Baros as a lone striker, even though he scored just once in qualification, and only ended an 11-month international goal drought in February’s friendly against Ireland.
But with playmaker Tomas Rosicky fit and keeper Petr Cech on form, the Czechs are tough to beat. And if the newcomers make good on their early promise, a surprise or two is certainly possible.
EURO 2012 FIXTURES
08.06.12 Russia (Wroclaw, Pol)
12.06.12 Greece (Wroclaw, Pol)
16.06.12 Poland (Wroclaw, Pol)
EURO 2012 SQUAD
1 Petr Cech (30) 20.05.82 Chelsea (Eng)
23 Jaroslav Drobny (32) 18.10.79 Hamburg (Ger)
16 Jan Lastuvka (29) 07.07.82 Dnipro (Ukr)
2 Theodor Gebre Selassie (25) 24.12.86 Slovan Liberec
5 Roman Hubnik (28) 06.06.84 Hertha Berlin (Ger)
3 Michal Kadlec (27) 13.12.84 Bayer Leverkusen (Ger)
8 David Limbersky (28) 06.10.83 Viktoria Plzen
12 Frantisek Rajtoral (26) 12.03.86 Viktoria Plzen
6 Tomas Sivok (28) 15.09.83 Besiktas (Tur)
4 Marek Suchy (24) 29.03.88 Spartak Moscow (Rus)
22 Vladimir Darida (21) 08.08.90 Viktoria Plzen
17 Tomas Hubschman (30) 04.09.81 Shakhtar Donetsk (Ukr)
19 Petr Jiracek (26) 02.03.86 Wolfsburg (Ger)
18 Daniel Kolar (26) 27.10.85 Viktoria Plzen
11 Milan Petrzela (28) 19.06.83 Viktoria Plzen
14 Vaclav Pilar (23) 13.10.88 Viktoria Plzen
13 Jaroslav Plasil (30) 05.01.82 Bordeaux (Fra)
9 Jan Rezek (30) 05.05.82 Anorthosis (Cyp)
10 Tomas Rosicky (31) 04.10.80 Arsenal (Eng)
15 Milan Baros (30) 28.10.81 Galatasaray (Tur)
21 David Lafata (30) 18.09.81 Jablonec
7 Tomas Necid (22) 13.08.89 CSKA Moscow (Rus)
20 Tomas Pekhart (23) 26.05.89 Nuremberg (Ger)
Michal Bilek (47) 13.04.65
… coach Michal Bilek signed a new contract, committing him to the national team until 2014 … Vladimir Darida replaced left-sided midfielder Daniel Pudil, who has a hand injury, after making an impressive debut in the 2-1 friendly victory over Israel …
EURO 2012 QUALIFYING CAMPAIGN
07.09.10 Lithuania (h) 0-1
08.10.10 Scotland (h) 1-0
12.10.10 Liechtenstein (a) 2-0
25.03.11 Spain (a) 1-2
29.03.11 Liechtenstein (h) 2-0
03.09.11 Scotland (a) 2-2
07.10.11 Spain (h) 0-2
11.10.11 Lithuania (a) 4-1
P W D L F A Pts
Spain 8 8 0 0 26 6 24
Czech Rep 8 4 1 3 12 8 13
Scotland 8 3 2 3 9 10 11
Lithuania 8 1 2 5 4 13 5
L’chtenstein 8 1 1 6 3 17 4
11.11.11 Montenegro (h) 2-0
15.11.11 Montenegro (a) 1-0
By Sam Beckwith