It started with a free-kick on the Czech right. Borek Dockal stood over the ball and looked towards the penalty box where he saw a swirling mass of red and white shirts and then shifted his gaze left and towards Jaroslav Plasil and beyond to David Limbersky. The Bordeaux midfielder, unaware that Dockal was preparing to go off script and deviate from the pre-determined list of set-pieces, could only react when he noticed that the ball, unusually over hit, was heading in his direction. It ended just over ten seconds later with Aleksejs Visnakovs beating a helpless Petr Cech.
That brief pass of play – clumsy, uncoordinated and somewhat arrogant – summed up the Czech Republic’s performance for the best part of eighty-nine uncomfortable minutes at Eden. The wave of optimism that had been present after seeing off the Netherlands, Turkey, Kazakhstan and Iceland in successive fixtures had now been eradicated in six hundred seconds.
As the game wore on the crowd became restless. Whistles and jeers rose with every passing minute and chats of my jsme gol grew louder and louder as the 14,000 or so inside Eden began to realise and accept the possibility that Latvia would hand the Czechs their first defeat in what has been a somewhat surprisingly excellent Euro 2016 qualification campaign. And then Vaclav Pilar turned up in the final minute to secure a point that they hardly deserved.
After the success of defeating Iceland last autumn, Pavel Vrba opted to keep faith with those that had performed so admirably in the qualification campaign thus far. Jaroslav Plasil looked to continue his international renaissance in the centre of midfield whilst the only enforced change was due to Pavel Kaderabek’s injury, but with Theo Gebre Selassie back to full fitness and in form for Werder Bremen, that hardly seemed like a problem. Everything seemed fine just the way it was and that itself caused trouble.
David Lafata hasn’t been in sparkling form for a while now, but Vrba, rightly, kept faith in the Sparta striker whilst refusing to reward Milan Skoda’s industrious reinvention. Despite being decidedly off the boil in recent league matches Ladislav Krejci retained his place on the left and Plasil was favoured ahead of the more defensive and combative Lukas Vacha. On paper, these were all decisions that could be easily explained away. But with hindsight….
The warning signs were evident almost from the opening whistle. The Czechs looked somewhat cumbersome whilst their Baltic opponents nipped at their heels and were happy to invite pressure and attack quickly. One such incident saw Latvia win a corner which resulted in Kaspar Gorkss, the visitors’ captain, heading narrowly wide whilst everybody played musical statutes in the six yard box.
Encouraged to play slowly against a team that was happy to sit backwards, the hosts looked bulky and cumbersome. Rosicky failed to find the angles needed to dissect a disciplined defence whilst Dockal and Krejci failed to make much of an impact from their wide positions. David Lafata, the predatory striker, barely got so much of a hint of Andris Vanins’ goal. And then the inevitable happened when Dockal gifted the ball to the Latvians who had been patiently waiting to launch a rapid counter-attack.
Plasil became the social media scapegoat in the immediate aftermath of that goal, but he was hardly the sole guilty party in a string of errors. But once again its vogue to criticise the Bordeaux midfielder and Pavel Vrba seemed to share that opinion, hauling him off at half-time in favour off a complete formation shift and the introduction of Vaclav Pilar.
Things improved for the second-half as those in red pushed further forwards in search of openings, to the point where Theo Gebre Selassie and Vaclav Prochazka became auxiliary midfielders. But for long periods there was no plan, there was just aimless passing and hurried attempts to break defensive lines. After witness Vrba go toe-to-toe with Guus Hiddink and work out clear strategies in his previous qualifies, this display reminded everybody of the ‘suck it and see’ performances characterised by Michal Bilek’s tenure in charge of the National Team. It wasn’t pretty.
The Czechs were handed a reprieve late on when Petr Cech found himself in no-man’s land. Backtracking as quickly as possible he could only arch his neck to watch Valerijs Sabala’s speculative effort sail over his head and inches wide from ending the tie.
At that point though there was a sea of red piling forwards. Tomas Necid and Vaclav Kadlec had been brought on and Gebre Selassie and Prochazka continued to roam forwards. Prochazka astutely found space and a shot of goal and in the ensuing scramble Vaclav Pilar bundled in the equaliser.
Czech Republic: Cech 4 – Gebre Selassie 6, Prochazka 6, Kadlec 5, Limbersky 4 – Plasil 3 (46’ Pilar 6), Darida 5 – Dockal 5, Rosicky 5, Krejci 4 (57’ Necid 5) – Lafata 4 (81’ Kadlec N/R)
Latvia: Vanins – Freimanis, Dubra, Gorkss, Maksimenko – Rakels, Tarasovs, Zjuzins (87’ Zigajevs), Laizans (66’ Ikaunieks), Visnakovs (82’ Fertovs) – Sabala
- Posted by Chris Boothroyd
- On 30th March 2015