The Czech Republic U21s arrive at the European Under-21 Championships the (quietly) confident underdogs. Much of the debate, discourse and narrative have, thus far, been centred around their most well-known peers of English, German and Italian patronage. Despite hosting the tournament, hardly anybody has given the Lion Cubs the time of day outside of Czech borders; even those of Czech nationality have been fairly skeptical of their chance this summer. But here, we say ‘overlook them at your peril’.
Whilst everybody else has had to navigate the qualification process – though some had a far easier time of it than others – the Czechs have used that time to carefully tinker with their squad and to ensure that by the time June 17th comes around, it’s a finely tuned beast that’s ready to roar in front of capacity crowd after capacity crowd. For the past two years or so Jakub Dovalil has watched over a core group over players, adding to it and subtracting from it as and when is necessary. And what’s more important is that he’s been given free reign by the Czech FA and the clubs (Watford aside) to do so. This is a big deal.
Recent friendly results have been positive: At the tail end of last year the Czechs held Germany to a 1-1 draw in Prague whilst in 2015 they’ve beaten a strong Portugal side and were unlucky to lose to England in a tightly contest game at Letna. During their training camp they recorded successive victories over Ukraine, made all the more impressive given that players were heavily rotated. Add Vaclav Kadlec, Pavel Kaderabek and Ladislav Krejci to the mix – all of whom were on senior international duty last week and skipped the Austrian retreat – and you have a formidable unit – especially on home soil.
But whilst Dovalil’s had the time to carefully piece together his squad, it hasn’t all been plain sailing. Just over a year ago he handed opportunities to a number of fringe players, who failed to impress as they slipped to defeat to neighbours Slovakia. Chip away at this team’s core and there is a soft underbelly, especially upfront.
One of the biggest stories surrounding the side has been the forced omission of Matej Vydra, the pacy Watford forward who had been set to lead the Czech Under-21s’ line of attack alongside Vaclav Kadlec. A focal point of Dovalil’s plans for a while now, the former Jihlava and Banik Ostrava striker even skipped senior national team duty earlier this year in order to spend time with this current crop of players and ease into the squad.
Come the end of the season everything seemed to be okay; he returned to Prague, made use of Dukla Prague’s training facilities and was named by to head of to Austria for the pre-tournament training camp. But then at the last minute the Pozzo’s played hardball and refused to release him, citing Premier League commitments. However they did let Jonathan Bond travel with the England squad….
That piece of murky business aside, this is arguably the strongest possible twenty-three that could have been named. There is an argument to made for the inclusion of another forward given that long-time team member Michal Krmencik is currently rehabbing from injury. But with Tomas Prikryl, newcomer Jan Kliment and Jiri Skalak all capable of playing up top there is depth up top, if not top-tier strength. But it’s clear that the burden of scoring goals lies with Vaclav Kaldec. It’s a good job he averages one every other game at this level then isn’t it?
“Almost everywhere you can feel that a big event is going to start,” Ladislav Krejci told UEFA.com earlier today. A capacity crowd will be in situate at Slavia Prague’s Stadion Eden to witness the opening game and there’s hardly a ticket left for the other games in Prague, Olomouc and Uherske Hradiste.
“For all of us, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime occasion,” the winger continued. Everybody wants to play, everybody is pulling in the same direction and everybody wants to win. For the Czech Republic, playing host to this event is about as good as it’s going to get when it comes to winning a trophy on home turf.
In a world of multi-million pound teenagers and ‘Top 5’ league starlets the Czechs will ruffle a few feathers and surprise.
This team is under the radar and they’re all the better for it.
There’s some debate about whether the Banik ‘keeper will start in goal or whether Dovalil will opt for Hradec Kralove’s Tomas Koubek, but here there’s no doubt about who the Czech number one should be*. (That’s Pavlenka by the way.)
Banik’s first-choice enjoyed a meteoric autumn which culminated in a call up to the senior Czech side and legitimately brought him into the debate surrounding who the best Synot Liga goalkeeper was at the time. His form has tailed off since then but he remains an exceptional shot stopper who looks set to worm his way into the senior Czech side on a permanent basis sooner rather than later.
And you have to remember he plays for the Czech Republic’s seminal basket case of a club, Banik Ostrava.
At lot has been said about Pavel Kaderabek in these parts for a while now and there’s going to be a lot more column inches dedicated to the right-back in the years to come.
Recently voted the Synot Liga’s Player of the Season by some margin, Sparta Prague’s prized asset is first-choice for both club and country at senior level and looks set to complete a move to the Bundesliga (Hoffenheim if you must know) in the coming weeks. He’s everything a modern full-back should be and he’s by far and away the most complete player in this squad.
Expect him to attack with reckless abandon and defend with ruthless tenacity, form a formidable link with Jiri Skalak down the right and tee up Vaclav Kadlec with alarming regularity. He’ll be the driving force of this team.
A former teammate of Kaderabek and Kadlec at Sparta, Skalak made his loan move to Mlada Boleslav permanent a couple of months ago for around £250,000 – no loose change by Czech standards.
The former Sparta academy graduate won’t win any prizes for aesthetic or artistic quality, but he’ll perform a vital role this summer thanks to his tireless work ethic, defensive aptitude and gritty, nasty and tenacious style of play. He’s the kind of player you back to get booked after giving the opposing full-back a good kicking.
He’s also a goal threat too, scoring six times for his club this season from the right of midfield. But expect him to deputise upfront in the tournament opener as the suspended Vaclav Kadlec sits in the stands.
The golden boy of Czech football for the Football Manager generation.
It was determined five years ago or so that Vaclav Kadlec was the great Czech hope and of course, he’s failed to live up to the hype. He hasn’t fired the Czech Republic to a major tournament and hasn’t quite made it at the highest level – yet.
On his day he is unplayable. He returned to Sparta at the turn of the year after a frustrating spell in the Bundesliga and has blazed through opposition defences in a manner that suggests his ability is far beyond anything the Czech Republic can offer. Shunted out wide to accommodate others, Kadlec netted nine times thirteen leagues games and generally ran the show with the help of Pavel Kaderabek.
But there is the Bundesliga question. He hit the ground running in Germany after heading to Frankfurt in 2013, but that energy and ruthless streak waned and he began to cut a frustrated figure on the sidelines as he quickly lost the faith of first Armin Veh and then Thomas Schaaf.
It is still to be determined if he’ll become a truly great player or not, but this tournament provides him with the platform to answer that question. Given his club form you’d back him to score blindfolded, but we all know the German defence won’t be as accommodating as, say, Pribram’s, Slovacko’s or Ceske Budejovice’s.
The one person to benefit from Watford’s decision to retain Matej Vydra is Jan Kliment. The Vysocina Jihlava forward has gone from an uncapped squad member to impact substitute in a few short weeks.
Kliment broke through into Jihlava’s first-team towards the latter half of this season and has quietly impressed, evidently doing enough to turn Dovalil’s eye. On his debut, against Ukraine in Austria, he scored one and set up another in what was near enough a dream start to his Under-21 career. He’s no Matej Vydra, but from what we’ve seen he isn’t a bad replacement and could do some damage when drifting inwards from wide positions.
‘Laco’ Takacs’ form has dipped since he burst into the national conscious towards the end of 2014, but the defensive-midfielder-come-centre-back has cemented himself in the midst of Teplice’s backline and effectively shackled Germany’s creative fulcrums in his first start at Under-21 level last November.
It seems strange tipping a Synot Liga regular as a breakthrough star but we’re big fans of Michal Travnik in this parish.
The central midfielder has been ever present for mid-table Slovacko and has weighed in with a handful of assists and a couple of goals in his most productive campaign to date. He’s rarely flashy, but players of his ilk don’t get the headlines that they necessarily deserve. Cool, calm and composed, as central midfielders come he isn’t bad and could raise a few eyebrows if given the chance.
Predicted XI (v Denmark)
Pavlenka – Kaderabek, Baranek, Brabec, Hybs – Petrak, – Prikryl, Zmrhal, Travnik, Krejci – Skalak
Absent: Kadlec and Kalas (both suspended)
Manager: Jakub Dovalil
Dovalil has a long-standing relationship with the Czech FA, one that dates back to 2002 when he was tasked with looking after the Under-16 age groups. The former Slavia youth coach has steadily risen through the ranks and has overseen some impressive results over the years.
Head coach of the Lion Cubs since 2008, he has lead a previous generation of Under-21s to the semi-finals of the 2011 competition and was assistant manager to Michal Bilek during Euro 2012.
Very experienced, tried and tested at this level. Ensuring that the Czechs reach the Rio Olympics will not only be a job well done, it’ll be a just reward for his hard work over the years.
1 Tomas Koubek (Hradec Kralove); 16 Jiri Pavlenka (Banik Ostrava); 23 Michal Reichl (Sigma Olomouc)
2 Pavel Kaderabek (Sparta Prague); 5 Jakub Brabec (Sparta); 15 Jan Baranek (Viktoria Plzen); 19 Matej Hybs (Vysocina Jihlava); 20 Jakub Jugas (Zbrojovka Brno); 21 Matej Hanousek (Dukla Prague); 22 Tomas Kalas (Middlesborough)
4 Adam Janos (Jihlava); 6 Ondrej Petrak (Nurnberg); 7 David Houska (Sigma); 8 Jaromir Zmrhal (Slavia Prague); 10 Jiri Skalak (Mlada Boleslav), 11 Martin Frydek (Slovan Liberec); 12 Michal Travnik (Slovacko); 13 Ladislav Krejci (Sparta); 14 Ladislav Takacs (Teplice); 18 Lukas Masopust
3 Vaclav Kadlec (Sparta); 9 Jan Kliment (Jihlava); 17 Tomas Prikryl (Dukla)
17th June – Czech Republic v Denmark (Eden, Prague)
20th June – Czech Republic v Serbia (Letna, Prague)
23rd June – Czech Republic v Germany (Eden, Prague)
*Can you classify somebody who is not guaranteed to start a key player? *shrugs shoulders*
- Posted by Chris Boothroyd
- On 16th June 2015