28 October ~ Famed for its beer, Plzen (Pilsen) has historically had a lower profile in Czech football, where Viktoria Plzen have long been also-rans. Until recently, the West Bohemian city's biggest contribution to the game was probably Gambrinus lager's long-running sponsorship of the first division. This season, however, to everyone's surprise, Plzen are nine points clear at the top of the table and look likely to mark next year's 100th anniversary with their first league title. Frantisek Komnacky, coach of rivals Baumit Jablonec, has already conceded defeat. "I'll put it simply," he told the idnes.cz website earlier this month. "They won't lose first place."
After drawing with Olomouc on the opening day of the season, Viktoria won their next 11 games, including a 1-0 away win over champions Sparta Praha, before Mlada Boleslav ended their unbeaten run on Saturday. Coached by the respected but unglamorous Pavel Vrba, Plzen matched their greatest success last season, winning the Czech cup for the first time since 1971, and also finished a creditable fifth in the league. This season, however, few pundits expected much improvement from a team the Czech press sometimes jokingly refers to as "Sparta Praha B" because it contains so many of the wealthy Prague side's former players.
Playmaker Pavel Horvath, who left Sparta in 2008, is the star of Vrba's team, even at the age of 35. Right-sided midfielder Milan Petrzela, whose performances this season have earned him a call-up to the national team, is another former Spartan, as are striker Jan Rezek and attacking midfielder Daniel Kolar who, with nine goals and eight goals respectively, are among the league's leading scorers. Former Czech international wing-back David Limbersky is another ex-Sparta man. Vrba says his success is a result of emphasising speed, technical ability and attacking play, just as he did as a youth coach. These ideas were further refined at Slovak sides Matador Puchov and MSK Zilina, where he won the title in 2007, before he took charge of Plzen the following year.
In his first season, Vrba led the club to a disappointing mid-table finish but he has seen his team develop steadily ever since. Remarkably, Viktoria's excellent start has taken place against a backdrop of financial problems and the mysterious disappearance in May of the Czech FA's deputy chairman Miroslav Kriz, a man with close links to the club. Formerly the chairman of Plzen's supervisory board, Kriz, whose whereabouts are still unknown, was rumoured to have been the club's majority owner. In August, it was revealed that a group of investors led by businessman Tomas Paclik had taken control of Viktoria in May 2009, but the club continues to struggle with debts racked up under Kriz. Success on the pitch can only help, however, and barring a spectacular collapse, headlines about Plzen players "toasting success" and "raising glasses" seem like a given next spring. Sam Beckwith