Euro 2020 preview, Group D – Czech Republic: Tomas Danicek on the Czech’s high-octane football
Our Matchday Squad will cover every nation at the Euros
For Euro 2020, we’ve assembled 24 expert journalists to give you the latest insight and tips on every team throughout the tournament.
Here, journalist Tomas Danicek gives us his take on the Czech Republic…
Give us an overview of your team’s chances at Euro 2020
The national team has for a long time not been very popular in the eyes of the general public, struggling to even sell out home stands against Germany, Spain, and the likes.
The supremely boring Michal Bilek tenure (2009-13) and then the wild experimental era of Karel Jarolim that began with a 0-0 home draw with Azerbaijan (2016-18) have drained much energy and appetite from casual spectators. Though well-balanced, disciplined and reasonably rich in recent form of key players, it’s highly unlikely this team will come anywhere close to every neutral’s favourite Euro 2004 side.
That said, the Czechs have historically thrived on adversity and underestimation with the 2020/21 Nations League serving as the latest testament to that. After four matchdays, the Czechs were sitting four points behind Scotland, yet they closed out their campaign with two dominant victories to the tune of two clean sheets and clinched the promotion to League A. In 2012, the Czechs opened the Euros with a devastating 4-1 loss yet still rebounded to top their group. They have stood their ground against Belgium and England recently, too, actually deserving the four points they ended up getting.
This is a team whose backbone is formed by players who are simply used to winning, often against all odds. Slavia Prague – whose tactical blueprint the Czech national team unashamedly follows – have just won their second double (third title) and appeared in a second Europa League quarter-final in three years, with regular national team contributors like Boril, Coufal, Kral or Soucek having their fingerprints all over these achievements. Show them a finger now, and they’ll bite your whole hand off.
What would you say are your team’s major strengths?
This team is, above all, well-drilled because it feeds off all the Slavia Prague connections. Had Kudela not gotten himself suspended for racial abuse, an all-Slavia backline of early 2020 with Coufal, Kudela, Zima and Boril would’ve been possible or indeed plausible.
Soucek and Kral are used to backing up each other whenever one of them bursts forward, too. When he was at the club himself, Silhavy coached Pavlenka, Barak, Boril and Zmrhal to a league title in 2017. And that’s not to mention guys like Provod, Holes, Sevcik or Masopust who’ve chipped in along the way, too – the former two being especially instrumental in the recent 1-1 draw with Belgium.
This sort of family-esque unity and pervasive chemistry translates into how the team defends above all, pressing effectively up high. With Darida, Kral and Soucek, there’s not a single starting midfielder who couldn’t be described as a two-way presence; all of them run a lot, have versatile skill sets and contribute at both ends. The balance is key.
And any weaknesses?
Basically the last sentence can also be interpreted as a weakness. Especially when things don’t go our way, there’s just not a single elite player able to take over and turn the tide on his own. Adam Hlozek could become that, but he’s still unproven at this level.
Too often when we don’t score early, we struggle to break down opponents. Darida hasn’t lived up to his early career billing of the Rosicky heir apparent, and so we haven’t had that mercurial, creative number 10 ever since Rosicky’s peak.
More acutely, the centre back position seems to be a pressing weakness. Kudela is banned, Celustka and Brabec – two other experienced CBs – have been bad this spring, even formerly in-form players like Zima and Kalas have struggled lately. Petrasek and Hovorka are nursing long-term injuries. There’s just no-one to lean on.
Give us the lowdown on your team’s star player?
Jamie Carragher marked him the best signing of the season, The Athletic called him the Underrated Player of the Season, and West Ham have gone from a serious relegation candidate to a Champions League hopeful in just 15 months with him.
Seemingly every week, there appears a new stat that takes your breath away. More open play goals than Bruno Fernandes. Most ground covered. Most aerial duels won. Soucek is simply a phenomenon. An instant cult hero for West Ham fans, a hard-working role model for many current Slavia prospects, and a ground-breaking export for Czech football as a whole – becoming the first Czech to score 10 goals in a Premier League season soon after breaking the record for most expensive transfer from the Czech top flight.
Soucek fills a slightly different role for the national team than for West Ham – he acts more as an anchor and traditional holding midfielder instead of the formidable Fellaini-esque box-to-box presence – but he remains capable of clutch scoring, especially on attacking set pieces that are currently the main source of Czech goals.
And tell us about a player from your team who could be a breakthrough star at this tournament?
In a way, it’s too late to consider him a player poised for a breakthrough. He turned 25 this year, is four years removed from a decent u-21 Euro showing and clubs have already paid north of 50 million euros for his services. In another way, Patrik Schick hasn’t fully broken through just yet, mostly due to his inability to stay healthy.
He’s the only Czech player to record a 10-goal season in two top European leagues (Serie A and Bundesliga), yet he most likely won’t hit the 30-cap mark until after the Euro.
On his day, he’s the most complete striker we’ve had since forever – capable of holding the ball up, linking up with teammates, striking the ball with both feet – yet those days haven’t come in satisfying numbers. Between 2018 and 2019, there was a 12-month period where you would find only two games (including friendlies) in which the Czechs scored without Schick showing up on the stat sheet. In the remaining seven games he’d notched seven goals and one assist. Since then, he’s been mostly out of the line-up, leaving Silhavy scrambling for his replacement with little success.
How far do you think your team can go in this tournament?
Getting out of the group must be the aim; it could even be considered a must.
Thus far since the shiny 1996 tournament debut, the Czechs have kept the predictable pattern of good Euros-bad Euros-good Euros going. Last time out we didn’t win a single game for the first time in our (somewhat short) Euro history.
It’s time to make amends, and I do think we can surprise even the World Cup finalists from Croatia whose ageing centre backs could really struggle with our signature high-octane football and the expansive play of Patrik Schick up top. But much depends on the opener; we have only beaten Scotland once on UK soil (in 1999) and haven’t done it to England yet, so we’ll have to break this British curse one way or another.
Easy one to finish with, who wins the tournament, and who do you think will be top scorer?
France. Harry Kane.