The Czech Republic needed a playoff win over Montenegro to make it to Euro 2012 after an uninspiring campaign during which it scored only 12 goals in eight games and lost at home to Lithuania. In fact, FA general manager Vladimir Smicer almost sacked coach Michal Bilek.
A turnaround, happened, though, due in part because of the suspension of holding midfielder Thomas Hubschmann for the Montenegro game. Forced to shuffle his pack, Bilek replaced Hubschmann with Petr Jiracek while Jaroslav Plasil played a deeper role in a new-look 4-2-3-1 formation. Tomas Rosicky returned to his role as playmaker, and suddenly the Czechs attacked with a verve that was lacking in the previous 4-2-2-2 setup.
The biggest problem remains scoring for this side, as Milan Baros has proved to be far from the player who lit up Euro 2004, and Tomas Pekhart, at 22, is not quite ready to replace him yet.
Cech had a wretched Euro 2008 and was not looking great this season until he burst into form following the appointment of Roberto di Matteo as Chelsea's manager. The keeper almost single-handedly shut down Barcelona in the Champions League semifinals, and he saved three out of six spot kicks in the victorious final over Bayern Munich. Despite all that, he is still not revered as much as he should be by Czech fans.
A key player in the Viktoria Plzen side that won the 2011 Czech League -- he impressed in its Champions League group stage debut last season -- Jiracek scored a wonderful solo goal in the playoff win over Montenegro. His emergence has given the Czechs a new vitality. "He is hard-working, versatile and covers a lot of ground," said Cech of the 26-year old, who injured his ankle and has barely played since moving to Wolfsburg in January.
The star of Czech football since he was the creative force behind the '04 side, Rosicky's surge in form from winter onward has been reflected in the national team, too. Put simply, when Rosicky plays well, so does the Czech Republic. He has benefited from a return to his favored No. 10 role; for much of the campaign he was wide right in a 4-2-2-2 and would spend most of the time drifting infield. As Arsene Wenger was reminded in the second half of this season, Rosicky prefers to play in the middle.
The top scorer at Euro 2004, Baros is now a figure Czech fans love to hate, even though Bilek hasn't faltered in his support. Baros has scored 40 international goals (Jan Koller's Czech record is 53) but only nine in his last 32 matches (five of which came against San Marino and Lichtenstein). His involvement in a series of scandals left his reputation harmed, and after the Czechs qualified for Euro 2012, he returned to Prague drunk and wearing just a thong. "I will always be a rebel and I will never care what people say about me," he said. He is expected to retire from international football after the tournament.
Bilek was almost sacked mid-campaign, and though he is expected to stand down after the tournament, he could yet earn a reprieve if he can guide this team out of Group A. A former midfielder who played for his country at the 1990 World Cup, Bilek is a naturally cautious coach whose methods won the '07 league and Cup double with Sparta Prague. But a late change in formation has brought about a more offensive Czech style. Will it be enough to keep him in the job?
Last year's Czech champion, Viktoria Plzen, became the first Czech side from outside Prague to make it to the Champions League group stages this season, after winning all of its qualifying matches, home and away, against Pyunik Yerevan, Rosenborg and FC Copenhagen (1-3, 2-1). In its group, it defeated and tied with BATE Borisov before a dramatic 2-2 draw with AC Milan. That encouraged Bilek to select four Plzen players for the Czech Republic's crucial qualifier against Scotland, a 2-2 draw. In the playoff win over Montenegro, the Plzen boys were vital: Vaclav Pilar scored a spectacular opening goal, while a second was added after a foul on Daniel Kolar. Jiracek, who has since moved to Wolfsburg, then scored the only goal away from home after a fantastic dribble in the box. "The Plzen players definitely helped us, they have made our attacking game stronger and given us more options," Bilek said.
Bilek played Rosicky and Plasil behind a two-man strike-force for most qualifying games but switched to a 4-2-3-1 for the playoff win over Montenegro, with Jiracek and Plasil the two holding midfielders. Both paid off handsomely, with Plasil filling the Hubschmann role excellently, as he is more creative and links up well with Rosicky. There is a new name at right back, too, Theodor Gebre Selassie, who plays center back for club Slovan Liberec but has excelled out wide since making his national team debut last year.