The last time Slavia Prague were crowned Czech champions, they left the Stadion Evžena Rošického and returned home to Vršovice to take up residency at the newly built Eden Arena. The years that followed for Slavia have been barren: There have been riots, financial despair, pitch invasions, relegation battles, bizarre appointments, and even a spell when Milan Škoda was deployed as a makeshift centre-half.
Finally, their journey came full circle. With Rammstein in town, Slavia temporarily left Eden for the Evžena Rošického to claim their first league title since 2009.
Eight years ago, the title race was wrapped up well before the final day and Slavia could afford to be looking ahead to the champagne celebrations that would greet the final whistle. This time around, the season went down to the wire: Slavia Prague knew that they had to beat Zbrojovka Brno to secure the title. Any other result and they would gift Viktoria Plzeň the chance to win their third successive league championship, a feat not achieved since Sparta Prague dominated the 1990s.
Initially, that pressure weighed heavy on those wearing the famous red-and-white havled shirts. Viktoria Plzeň, perennial winners, went ahead inside fifteen minutes when Marek Bakoš’ strike from the edge of the area took a heavy deflection and wrong-footed a stricken Jan Hanuš in the Jihlava goal. Lady Luck, it seemed, was on the side of the defending champions.
Over at Strahov, Slavia buckled. Whether word of Bakoš’ goal had done the rounds or not, the entire team looked nervous and often resorted to route one football whenever Zbrojovka’s luminous yellow shirts came into view. Panic started to creep in and passes started to be misplaced. Everything that could go wrong, was almost going wrong.
For twenty-six minutes, it seemed entirely like that Slavia Prague would fluff their lines and allow their understudy to grab the spotlight. But then the Vršovice side got a corner out of nothing. Jaromír Zmrhal stepped up, floated the ball towards the back post where Michal Frydrych rose highest to head in the opener.
In that moment, the floodgates opened and the ticker tape celebrations began. Stanislav Tecl would go on to grab a brace before Michal Ngadeu made it four. A four-nil win to seal their fourth Czech championship.
It was a deserved victory for Slavia, who have been the best team in the Czech Republic ever since Jaroslav Šilhavý sauntered into the dugout in September. For years, the post of Slavia manager has been a poisoned chalice but ever since his appointment, Šilhavý has brought calm to the club. He has led by example, been tactically flexible and, crucially, he has been quick to rectify his mistakes. He has even thrown some key players under the bus when he has had to (but not in the destructive manner favoured by some of his peers).
Under Šilhavý, Slavia went unbeaten in the league, outclassed Sparta Prague at Letná, and defeated Plzeň at Eden. Those victories against their nearest (and dearest) rivals proved to be pivotal: Their defeat of Sparta sent Zdeněk Ščasný packing whilst their late win over Viktoria hastened the inevitable exit of Roman Pivarník.
To a man, Slavia Prague were head and shoulders above the competition. The old adage is that the league table never lies, but this season its pants were quite clearly on fire. Despite finishing just two points behind the eventual champions, Viktoria Plzeň were never really in the same class as Slavia, who the entertainers, the pragmatists and the survivalists all rolled into one. When Milan Škoda ends the season with the Golden Boot and the Player of the Year award and his understudy, Muris Mešanović, scores twelve in twenty-six games and wins an award of his own, you know it is going to be your year.
Of course, it would be foolish to ignore the impact that CEFC China Energy has had on Slavia’s fortunes. But unlike Chinese operations in other countries, the private conglomerate has not put a foot wrong. Money has been invested in improving the squad whilst retaining key players, but, perhaps more importantly; it has also been used to purchase Eden outright. How long this lasts is another question entirely, as is the future of Eden should the relationship or success sour – but that is a quandary for another day.
Mind you, not everything went to plan. Slavia’s season started in embarrassing fashion as they went down 3-1 to Levadia Tallinn in Estonia during Europa League qualifying, only to scrape through on away goals after a scrappy fightback in Prague. One of the goalscorers that day was Gino van Kessel, somebody who has unfortunately entered Czech footballing lore for being a rather expensive flop.
Van Kessel was supposed to be Slavia’s statement signing. A prolific forward with the Slovakian side Trenčín, van Kessel cost around £1m and was seen as Milan Škoda’s long-term replacement. However, a handful of games and a couple of months later, the Curaçaoan international was pushed out of the door.
In a true act of one-upmanship, Sparta Prague went and outdid their city neighbours. Not content with bringing back the genuinely loveable but constantly injured Tomáš Rosický (who, predictably, managed just nineteen minutes of competitive football throughout the season), the Letná side also decided to open the chequebook and make a big money move for another much-loved son: Václav Kadlec.
The transfer of Kadlec from Midtjylland was rumoured to be an eye-watering £2.3m – an extraordinary, not to mention record fee. The forward has failed to pay that sum back on the pitch, but his signing highlights the scattergun approach to club management from Sparta’s hierarchy. Players signed in transfer windows past were pushed out of the door, new people came in and in the end, they suffered from the same old issues, namely a bloated squad and no sense of direction.
Unsurprisingly, the club went through a handful of managers this season. Zdeněk Ščasný was the first to go, given the axe after losing to Slavia in the first ‘S’ derby of the season. His replacement, David Holoubek, lasted a couple a months before losing his post due to a technicality. Then, came Tomáš Požár, who was supposed to steady the ship whilst Holoubek continued in the background, only to see player power force him out. Finally, Petr Rada arrived, seemingly at the behest of a dressing room clique. The only worry was that Rada had recently been sacked by Příbram after he guided them to the bottom of the league table
Perhaps rather inevitably, the twelve-time Czech champions floundered. Their third-place finish was their worst for a decade and they had to suffer the indignity of watching from afar as their city rivals would go on claim a thoroughly deserved title. And that’s without mentioning their ten point deficit to Plzeň, an embarrassingly brief tilt at qualifying for the Champions League and a mediocre Europa League campaign that was ended after a horror show against Russian opposition.
Still, there is always next season. And you really wouldn’t want to discount Sparta, even if Matthew Kowalewski and Patrice Boivin remain at the club……
Right until the twenty-sixth minute of the game of the season, Viktoria Plzeň were in with a shout of claiming their third title in a row. It is strange to think that if a handful of results had been different, then there is every chance that the Doosan-sponsored club would have topped the table. But whereas in seasons gone by they would have been called worthy champions as they passed the league trophy around, this season they would have been called the unworthy champions.
For most of the season, Plzeň sleepwalked through their league fixtures. Roman Pivarník looked an ill fit at the Doosan Arena, though the club’s lack of commitment did not help matters – though you can also say that about Dušan Uhrin Jr. and Miroslav Koubek’s tenures….
A poor summer in terms of recruitment was followed by a poor winter when ‘marquee’ signings either went straight onto the subs bench or were dumped straight into the reserves. Yet again, underlying issues that have plagued the club were not dealt with properly.
Whether Pivarník can be blamed for all of these incomings is up for debate, but Plzeň’s squad looked increasingly liked a busted flush as the season wore on. However, to give them their due, the core of the side are winners, and despite playing an unimaginative brand of football that was quite tough to watch, they ground out result after result to somehow end up second.
So close were Plzeň to lifting the league title that this season review had a completely different introduction, one which bemoaned the success of undeserving teams at both ends of the table.
From Slovácko in twelfth down to Příbram in sixteenth, the underbelly of the ePojisteni.cz liga was dire. To bludgeon a saying, all teams who at one stage or another were embroiled in a relegation battle deserved to be in the thick of it, but some were more deserving than others.
Take Bohemians 1905, for example. Under the stewardship of Miroslav Koubek, the Ďolíček club went seven games without a goal and ten without a victory. And they survived with a week to spare.
Bohemians were always going to struggle this season after losing the trio of Patrik Schick (remember him?), Rafael Acosta and Jhon Mosquera last summer. But nobody really expected them to be that bad for that long. Sure, the pair of Dominik Mašek and Siim Luts started off brightly, but like their teammates, they tailed away and by Christmas were shadows of their former selves.
Tellingly, Jan Holenda only found the net once whilst at the Ďolíček and was quickly allowed to leave. The former Plzeň and Rostov forward then joined Dukla, where he averaged just under a goal every other game.
Whilst Bohemians were playing impotent football, other clubs were at least trying their best to make a fist of it. Vysočina Jihlava turned in some truly horrible displays, but they were largely entertaining and recorded victories over top-six sides Mladá Boleslav, Zlín and Sparta Prague for good measure.
Luckily, Jihlava survived. Though the same cannot be said of Hradec Králové despite entertaining in their own way, will make an immediate return to the FNL. Their squad was paper thin and arguably the worst in the division, but in Radim Ottmar, they had one of the true showmen of the 2016-17 league season. The deceptively diminutive goalkeeper pulled of acrobatic save after acrobatic save, in order to keep opposing strikers out and the scoreline vaguely respectable.
Yet for all of his efforts, Ottmar failed to the most saves this season. Instead, that ‘honour’ fell to Příbram’s Aleš Hruška.
Once upon a time, managers of the Czech Republic national team regularly bandied about Aleš Hruška’s name. He was, quite literally, a safe pair of hands who would train well and could act as cover in the most extreme of circumstances. This year though, he was the complete opposite, and he was symbolic of Příbram’s tendency to self-combust.
The Středočeský club shipped sixty-one goals during the course an error-strewn season. To say that Příbram started badly would be an understatement: They followed up an opening day defeat to Zlín with losses to Mladá Boleslav, Plzeň, Slavia, Liberec and Hradec Králové, before they finally picked up their first win when they came from behind to upset Teplice at home. Then followed another five straight defeats and the club was effectively doomed at Christmas.
When Petr Rada was belatedly given the boot, there was a brief upturn in form that installed a little bit of hope around the Energon Arena. But in the midst of their brief period of resistance, Příbram and Jablonec combined to create headlines for all the wrong reasons.
You might remember that on the final day of last season, the two clubs conspired to play out a drab nil-nil draw that – miraculously – was enough to secure Příbram’s top-flight survival at the expense of Sigma Olomouc. What made matters worse was that Ivan Horník were all pictured laughing and joking together ahead of the match, adding credence to the notion that something was amiss.
This time around, there was no photograph of club hierarchy schmoozing before kick-off, but Jablonec failed to show up and effectively handed Příbram the three points. Given the lack of effort from all involved, it seemed that everybody was in on it.
All except the bookmakers, that was, who collectively had pegged Příbram has 8/1 outsiders going into the game. Naturally, after Příbram emerged for the tie victorious, a flurry of posts appeared on social media. It seemed that everybody had backed the underdogs and forced the bookies to take a little financial hit.
Once again, events at Střelnice posed more questions than answers.
Teams that occupied the middle ground this year were very, very mediocre, yet fascinatingly unpredictable.
Take Slovan Liberec, for example. After undergoing their seemingly annual rebuilding process, Liberec started the domestic season in terrible form, losing away to both Mladá Boleslav and Zlín, and drawing with Jihlava and Příbram at home. Europe was the clear priority at this point, and given Slovan’s financial situation it was an entirely reasonable course of action.
But whereas in other years the club had both squad depth and quality to cope with the Thursday/Sunday cycle, this time around Liberec staggered from midweek to the weekend. Couple that with the rampant speculation linking Jindřich Trpišovský with Sparta Prague, and it made for a pretty dire situation. By Christmas, the three-time Czech champions were out of Europe, were two points off the relegation zone and ‘boasted’ the league’s joint worst attack.
Thankfully, it was a case of ‘new year, new me’, for Trpišovský and his charges. The thought of him taking over at Sparta was dismissed and Slovan Liberec charged up the table to join Dukla Prague and Jablonec in the comfort of mid-table obscurity.
Zlín once again bolted straight out of the gates and were legitimately in the title race after fifteen games of the season. However, they once again saw their best players poached by bigger clubs and, once again, they reverted to type and suffered a drop-off in form come the second-half of the campaign. But, to interpret that as a slight against the club, Bohumil Páník and those who turned out in the yellow of Zlín would be wrong: A sixth place finish, fourteen points away from the drop, and the club’s first silverware since 1970 (more on that later), is a remarkable achievement.
Away from the title race, the only thing that needed to be decided on the final day of the season was who would finish fourth and claim the last remaining Europa League spot. That honour went to Mladá Boleslav, who stumbled over the line at the expense of a resurgent Teplice.
If being the most underwhelming and constantly frustrating team in the league was an award category, then Mladá Boleslav would have walked away with a trophy. Admittedly, the Central Bohemian club had their entire plans for the season disrupted when the Czech FA came calling for Karel Jarolím. Leoš Kalvoda was brought in but was quickly shown the door after a series of overly-cautious performances. Then, it was the turn of Martin Svědík, who you may remember from an excellent spell at Baník Ostrava a couple of years ago. But even the former Baník and Czech Under-20 coach could not coax consistency out of a side that looked mentally fragile. What should have been an easy jaunt to another top four finish instead turned out to be a nervy run-in that was characterised by collapses – most noticeably their game against Plzeň which saw them surrender a three-nil lead.
But even the former Baník and Czech Under-20 coach could not coax consistency out of a side that looked mentally fragile. What should have been an easy jaunt to another top four finish instead turned out to be a nervy run-in that was characterised by collapses – most noticeably their game against Plzeň which saw them surrender a three-nil lead.
In comparison, Teplice were a breath of fresh air. After a so-so start under new coach Daniel Šmejkal, the Glassblowers improved with every passing week to eventually mount an assault on fourth, and with it the Europa League. Jan Krob returned to form, registering a ridiculous amount of assists, though plaudits must go to Martin Fillo who had an absolutely amazing season on an individual level. Sadly, though, their final day defeat to Dukla consigned them to fifth.
All-in-all, the 2016-17 ePojisteni.cz liga had it all: An enthralling title battle, an entertaining relegation scrap, plenty of shock results and a surprisingly high number of exciting ties. With Slavia still flush with cash and set on dominance, Sparta determined to right the wrongs of previous campaigns and Viktoria Plzeň going back to the future by appointing Pavel Vrba, next year should be just as good.
David Lafata (Sparta Prague)
Milan Škoda (Slavia)
Muris Mešanović (Slavia)
Michal Škoda (Brno)
Michal Krmenčík (Plzeň)
Matúš Kozáčik (Plzeň)
Tomáš Grigar (Teplice)
Jiří Pavlenka (Slavia)
Tomáš Koubek (Sparta)
Martin Dúbravka (Liberec)
- Posted by Chris Boothroyd