Sparta Prague’s Europa League run can help Czech Republic at Euro 2016
Jamie Clark, Sports Editor | February 27, 2016
Since the dissolution of Czechoslovakia in 1993, following the Velvet Revolution of 1989, the Czech Republic have reached every European Championship finals and managed to keep up their presence at this tournament by making it to Euro 2016 with a far from vintage side.
Tough to place Czechs in Euro betting
Topping their qualifying group which contained surprise package Iceland and Turkey, with whom the Czechs shall do battle again at the France finals, as well as a much-fancied Dutch cadre that flopped, Pavel Vrba’s team are difficult to place in the betting.
The Czech Republic’s pool, Group D, at Euro 2016 also contains defending champions Spain and Croatia, and they begin with the toughest of their assignments against the Iberian outfit on Monday, June 13th.
While La Roja are obviously fancied to finish top and 11/2 to retain their crown in France, Coral have the other three sides very close together to qualify for the last 16. Czech advancement to the knockout phase is rated at 4/5, with the Blazers at 4/11 and Turks at 5/6.
Taking a 13/8 price for their stage of elimination to be in the round of 16 is most attractive, however. Let’s go back to the history lesson for a moment, though, as it sheds some light on this enigmatic nation.
Football brilliance moves from Moravia and Bohemia
During the last 20 years, the Czechs’ two great teams – Euro ’96 here in England that finished runners-up behind Germany, and that Euro 2004 blend which was arguably better on paper yet lost in the semi-finals to Greece – both had one thing in common.
No, it’s the not the presence of Czech Republic all-time greats Pavel Nedved and Karel Poborsky in those squads eight years apart, but at the time the best players had moved abroad to ply their trade in other top European leagues.
This was a notable move away from being insular during the union with Slovakia, as the entire roster that won Euro 1976 in the former Yugoslavia all came from domestic football.
Some 40 years later, the exploits of Czech capital club Sparta Prague as the sole representative of the country in European club competition could bring about a blend of talent based at home and further afield for this summer.
Sparta’s spirit shouldn’t be underestimated
As 40/1 outsiders to win the Europa League, nobody is advocating Sparta as an outright market bet, but here’s why they are a tempting 2/1 to qualify from their last 16 tie with Lazio.
Sensational Sparta came through the group stage, navigating a pool which contained both Bundesliga boys Schalke and Cypriot side APOEL Nicosia – neither of whom are strangers to playing Champions League football.
One of Prague’s two premier teams then won their last 32 tie to nil home and away against Russian Premier League outfit FC Krasnodar. It is fair to say, then, Sparta has some spirit and reaching the round of 16 is an achievement that shouldn’t be denigrated.
Next European opponents Lazio remain heavily reliant on attacking midfield duo Felipe Anderson and Antonio Candreva, who have a combined tally of 17 goals. That is one less than all four strikers have scored representing the Blue half of the Stadio Olimpico between them.
A shift from Plzen to Prague?
Czech Republic boss Vrba steered Viktoria Plzen into the Europa League knockout phase in three successive seasons before taking up his current post.
Naturally, he has brought some of his former club charges into the international fold as a result and kept others in.
Left back David Limbersky and attacking midfielder Daniel Kolar are some notable examples of those to have benefited from Vrba being coach of their country.
Plzen are the only other side from the Czech Republic in this competition’s present format to have come through a round of 32 fixture, so that illustrates how much the Prague outfit have punched above their weight.
Dockal is Czechs’ Spartan warrior
And that brings us on nicely to the key question – which players are behind Sparta’s surge to the last 16? Look no further than grafting striker David Lafata and his supply line, Borek Dockal.
Creative force Dockal delivers for club as well as country, top scoring for the Czech Republic in Euro 2016 qualifying with four, including the opener at home to the Netherlands and a winner in Turkey.
Half a dozen European assists and three goals show deadly Dockal, either operating from the right flank or as a number 10, is making an impression.
Reaching double figures for either of those stats should not be a problem when adding in his domestic contributions.
Lafata looks like fallback option again
Lafata, a veteran now aged 34, is unlikely to be the Czechs’ first-choice striker at Euro 2016, despite a return of 16 in 24 for Sparta which includes five in six Europa games.
That honour will rightly go to Tomas Necid, whose career is now back on track thanks to the same number of goals and counting for Bursaspor in Turkey after an injury nightmare.
Although there’s Watford-owned Matej Vydra on loan at Reading and the form of cross-capital rivals Slavia Prague’s Milan Skoda to consider, Lafata represents an experienced backup option open to Vrba.
It is a role Lafata is accustomed to, playing second fiddle previously in his stop-start international career behind the likes of all-time Czech Republic top scorers Jan Koller and Milan Baros.
No Holek in Czech defence
Sparta centre back Mario Holek is someone Vrba is having a look at following several largely unheralded years with Dnipro in Ukraine and upon his return to his homeland.
A key component in the back three which kept Krasnodar out in the last Europa League round, the 29-year-old will find it hard to make an international impression because the bulk of decent Czech defenders are abroad at high-profile teams in Turkey and Germany.
Long-serving stopper and skipper Petr Cech (Arsenal) is used to playing behind fellow 30-somethings Michal Kadlec (Fenerbahce) and Tomas Sivok (Bursaspor), though former Sparta star Pavel Kaderabek (Hoffenheim) is an established attacking outlet from right back.
With Daniel Pudil (Sheffield Wednesday) or Limbersky as options down the other flank of defence, the Czech Republic arguably have as good a back five as that which Euro 2016 Group D rivals Croatia and Turkey can field.
Midfield needs youth as well as experience
Even if veteran engine room duo Jaroslav Plasil and Tomas Rosicky prove able to stay fit and feature at the Euros, there is no getting away from the fact they have a combined age of 69.
Luckily the Czechs also have Vladimir Darida for midfield, who is flying high with resurgent Hertha Berlin in the Bundesliga.
Sparta holding player Lukas Vacha, meanwhile, may not do glamorous work, but his putting out of fires has allowed Dockal to flourish and express himself.
Out wide, former Czech talent of the year Ladislav Krejci, Josef Sural and Ondrej Zahustel are all vying to get in the squad for Euro 2016, and that should breed healthy competition among this wide trio in Prague.
There will remain something of an unknown quantity surrounding the Czech Republic, but Vrba needs to blend the future with established internationals to hold any hope of emulating their great vintages.
Success here would be reaching the Euro 2016 knockout phase, where the Czechs are 13/8 to bow out in the last 16 or 6/1 shots to be eliminated in the quarter-finals.