The team are very well organised and can press high up the pitch or defend in a block. With Spain, Croatia and Turkey in the group, the Czech Republic are much more likely to use the second approach
Main player profile: Vladimir Darida
It was probably the Czech Republic’s first Euro 2016-themed television commercial of the year. A bunch of kids are joined in their kickabout at a park by Antonín Panenka, author of the famous penalty, and Vladimír Darida. The younger of the two players forms a goal with two shopping bags and the European champion from 1976 beats one of the children with his trademark chip (https://youtu.be/37AqAUfTqEQ).
"It is not my thing," Darida says of his TV role with a hint of shyness that underlines his position as an anti-hero of the Czech football. "I like football. This was fun but not something I would like to do every day." The midfielder’s importance to the national team has increased steadily but you would struggle to find a more down-to-earth person in their squad for the Euros.
When you meet him on the street, you would not guess he is a professional footballer; his slight frame and good boy’s haircut would better suit a student. When Darida played for SC Freiburg and rode a scooter to training, he perfectly fitted the atmosphere of a sunny university town in Baden-Württemberg. Now he is playing for Hertha, the scooter has been dispensed with. "I brought it from Freiburg where I rode it every day," he says. "It wasn’t really safe in Berlin traffic, though. My father took it back to the Czech Republic and I gave it to my sister."
Never mind the scooter, Darida amazes with the distances he covers in a match – at around 12km or 13km he is among the Bundesliga’s marathon runners. "He has become the heart and lungs of our team," Michael Preetz, Hertha’s manager, says. "He’s added details to our midfield that we previously had missed."
One would expect such endurance to come hand in hand with iron health but that is not the case with Darida. His health almost made him quit football when he was 16. His growth stopped at the time when his team-mates shot up and suddenly he unable to handle the more demanding physicality of the game. Comparisons to Lionel Messi would be far-fetched but Darida too found a path to an international career – only in his case the solution lay in a lifelong gluten-free diet.
That is why he had a novel answer to questions about his dreams when he started to emerge at Plzeň. "I would love to taste pizza one day," he would reply. In Berlin, he managed to fulfill that dream, finding a restaurant that serves gluten-free pizza.
Now, with that box ticked, he can concentrate on realising his football ambitions. His breakthrough moment came as a 21-year-old in January 2012, when Petr Jiráček left Plzeň for Wolfsburg and Darida replaced him and immediately impressed. "Vladimír is very strong in the buildup, he likes to conduct the game and his kicking technique is brilliant," said his former coach Radoslav Látal, a Euro 1996 runner-up.
Darida faced Schalke in the knockout phase of the Europa League in his third and fourth full games for Plzen and played with the composure of a veteran and the eagerness of a puppy. "The good news is that he replaced Jiráček very well," said Pavel Vrba, the then Plzeň head coach. "The bad news is that soon I will have to look for his own replacement."
Four months of top-level football were enough to earn Darida a place in Michal Bílek’s Euro 2012 squad. Initially, he joined up as a reserve at the pre-tournament camp in Austria because of Tomáš Rosický’s fitness issues. Darida quickly showed he was much more than a reserve – and pushed Daniel Pudil out of the final squad. "When he came, I hardly knew him," says Milan Baroš, the former Liverpool striker who was the Czech Republic’s No1 forward at the Euros in Poland and Ukraine. "However, he immediately showed what he can do with a ball. He deserved his place in the team."
Then, Darida was a surprise inclusion; now he is among the first names on the list. He will be a key player, no matter what Rosický’s fitness might be. In the national team, Darida plays in a deeper, creative role. Whereas at club level he scores on average five or six goals a season, he has only one from more than 30 caps – but what a goal it was.
He received the ball around 20 yards from the Latvia goal, moved it on to his right foot with one slight touch and hit it precisely into the top corner. It was the winner that secured the Czech Republic’s place this summer’s tournament with three qualifiers remaining. "It has immense value for me," he said after the match in Riga. "I am very glad I finally scored for the national team. I had had many chances but was unlucky at times and I believed I was saving the goal for a more important time. And the time has come – now we can celebrate." The Czechs will hope he has saved another of his long-range efforts for France.
Tactical analysis and key questions
The outstanding characteristic that Pavel Vrba has brought to the national team from his successful years at the helm of Plzeň is organisation. In terms of individual quality, neither Viktoria nor the Czech Republic can match sides such as Atlético Madrid, Napoli or Holland, yet Vrba’s men were able to beat them.
The head coach, a former central defender, loves to attack and plays 4-2-3-1, with creativity in the middle and speed on the flanks. He likes to turn wingers or attacking midfielders into full-backs (or pick players converted by previous coaches) and use their speed and attacking instinct. That is the case with Pavel Kadeřábek or Theodor Gebre Selassie on the right side and with David Limberský or Daniel Pudil on the left.
Lately, he has picked wingers more inclined to come into the middle too – players such as Jiří Skalák, Bořek Dočkal or Josef Šural, who like to leave the flanks and get into shooting positions, providing space for the men behind them to push forward.
The team are very well organised and can press high up the pitch or defend in a block. With Spain, Croatia and Turkey in the group, the Czech Republic are much more likely to use the second approach – another reason being a lack of speed in central defence, which means that when the team press, the centre-halves do not push forward as they ideally would, leaving a dangerous gap between them and midfield.
The Czech Republic are strong at set pieces, too. There are several players who can turn a dead ball into a very lively one and a bunch of good headers, too. Vrba likes to come up with innovative set plays and one of his assistants, Karel Brückner, is a master of the art.
Petr Čech is a key player, his experience invaluable. With a Premier League Golden Glove award on his hand for the division’s most clean sheets in 2015-16, he heads to France with confidence high and in a good form.
Another vital component of the team is Tomáš Rosický. No one can match his creativity, though he has struggled with injuries and the team have had to learn to cope without him. The captain played half of the 10 qualifiers (W3-D1-L1) and the team did not collapse in his absence (W4-D0-L1).
Without Rosický, the Czech Republic struggle to open teams who defend deep – witness the 1-0 defeat by Scotland in a friendly in March – but they will not meet such opponents in the group stage at the Euros.
So, what can one expect from them? Against Spain and Croatia – teams who prefer to keep the ball – they are likely to sit deep and use speed on the flanks for counterattacks. In their final group game, against Turkey, when they may be battling to qualify for the last 16, they will be much more proactive. Getting beyond the group stage is certainly not out of reach.
Possible starting XI: Čech – Kadeřábek, Sivok, Kadlec, Limberský – Darida, Plašil – Dočkal (Skalák), Rosický, Krejčí (Šural) – Necid
- Which player will take everyone by surprise at Euro 2016?
Tomáš Rosický: According to the sceptics he is finished; his body will never recover sufficiently to play professionally again; after 20 minutes for Arsenal’s first team this season and some reserve matches he cannot be fit to play at the Euros. Really? Rosický has shown repeatedly that he can get into rhythm immediately even after long absences. He will be the team’s heart and brain again.
- Which player could be a disappointment?
Tomáš Necid: He may be the personification of the problems that the Czech Republic have in attack. Matěj Vydra does not play regularly for Reading, David Lafata is better suited to a role as an impact substitute and Patrik Schick is inexperienced, so Necid will be first choice. However, the tall and slow target man is not a natural fit against teams such as Spain or Croatia. Besides, he scored his last goal for Bursaspor on 6 February ...
- How far will the team go?
Round of 16. According to Fifa’s rankings the Czech Republic are the outsiders of Group D, and a game against Spain is a very tough start. However, the Czechs like to play against sides who attack and have shown they can recover from an opening defeat – they lost their first game in 1996, 2000 and 2012 and failed to progress only once (in 2000). And those were times when only the top two teams went through.
Secrets behind the players
- Ladislav Krejčí
The midfielder is a big patriot and has a tattoo of St. Wenceslas, the patron saint of the Czechs, on his shoulder. "It’s because I really love the Czech Republic. In my opinion, Prague is the most beautiful city in Europe," he once said. Could be on his way to England. Was heavily linked with a £5m move to Newcastle last summer – the late Pavel Srníček tipping him as "a very, very good winger – a real entertainer".
- Tomáš Rosický
Everyone knows that goalkeeper Petr Čech often plays drums. But the Czech dressing room is full of musicians. Tomáš Rosický likes rock music, too, and he plays guitar. One time he appeared on stage with a Czech band Tři sestry (Three Sisters) as a guitar player. His favourite album – and song – is Metallica’s Master of Puppets," he told Arsenal Player once. "It’s got everything I like about metal music. A great riff, it slows down and great guitars."
- David Lafata
He scores lots of goals and he loves shooting overall. David Lafata is an amateur huntsman. "It is my hobby, I love the peace in the forest. Game hunting is the best kind of rest for me," he said once. He is so passionate about it he even went hunting abroad, spending one of his holidays in a Canadian forest.
- Pavel Kadeřábek
His grandfather Václav Vrána won the Czech league title with Sparta Prague, too. And Pavel Kadeřábek himself is like a Czech Iker Casillas. Why? He is engaged to a model Tereza Chlebovská, who works as a reporter for iSport.tv.
- Roman Hubník
He is a very tough centre-back. Coming up against him can hurt a lot, and no wonder – Roman Hubník is a qualified blacksmith. He helped his granddad in his workshop as a kid and if he hadn’t made it as a footballer, he probably would have still been creating objects from wrought iron or steel.
Petr Cech (Arsenal)
Tomas Vaclik (FC Basel)
Tomas Koubek (Slovan Liberec)
Pavel Kaderabek (1899 Hoffenheim)
Michal Kadlec (Fenerbahce Istanbul)
Theodor Gebre Selassie (Werder Bremen)
Roman Hubnik (Viktoria Pilsen)
Tomas Sivok (Bursaspor)
David Limbersky (Viktoria Pilsen)
Marek Suchy (FC Basel)
Borek Dockal (Sparta Prag)
Tomas Rosicky (Arsenal)
Daniel Pudil (Sheffield Wednesday)
Jaroslav Plasil (Girondins Bordeaux)
Daniel Kolar (Viktoria Pilsen)
David Pavelka (Kasimpasa Istanbul)
Josef Sural (Sparta Prag)
Ladislav Krejci (Sparta Prag)
Jiri Skalak (Brighton & Hove)
Vladimir Darida (Hertha BSC)
Tomas Necid (Bursaspor)
Milan Skoda (Slavia Prag)
David Lafata (Sparta Prag)