THE HALF DECENT FOOTBALL MAGAZINE

Czech Republic v Greece, June 12, 5pm

12 June ~ Expectations were not high, but they were higher than this. Described as a "nightmare", "chaos" and a "debacle" in the media, the Czech Republic's 4-1 loss to Russia in their opening group game of Euro 2012 was bitterly disappointing for a country used to richer pickings at international tournaments, not least because of the historical baggage that comes with this fixture. In a not so subtle nod to 1968, one online gallery captioned a photo of a Russian goalscorer with the word Tankista ("Tank driver").

Most significantly, the Russia defeat ended the fragile ceasefire declared by coach Michal Bilek's critics since the national team qualified for Euro 2012. Chants of "Bilek out!" were echoing around the Stadion Miejski in Wroclaw by the end of Friday's game. They were joined later by massed ranks of media critics questioning the Czech boss's abilities and Czech federation chairman Miroslav Pelta's decision to present Bilek with a contract for the 2014 World Cup qualification campaign even before Euro 2012 had begun.

Now, however, the bulk of the media is looking ahead to tonight's must-win game against Greece with, if not optimism, at least a grim pragmatism. "Friday: implosion. Saturday: disappointment. Sunday: forgetting. Monday: mobilisation. Tuesday: playing for their lives," wrote the Czech daily newspaper Mlada fronta Dnes yesterday, describing the phases of grief the Czech team and their fans have been going through in the past few days.

Team selection has gradually overtaken Bilek's future as the leading topic of debate. Besides the coach himself, Milan Baros has been the main target of criticism following Friday's game, with many fans and reporters doubting the 30-year-old forward's suitability for the lone striker role.

With Baros's potential replacements – 22-year-olds Tomas Pekhart and Tomas Necid, and domestic-based veteran David Lafata – all lacking significant international experience, Bilek looks likely to keep faith with a striker whose last competitive international goal came against Liechtenstein in March 2011.

It is expected that defensive midfielder Tomas Hubschman will start tonight, having been brought on as a substitute against Russia to bolster Jaroslav Plasil's flimsy attempts to shield the back four. Left-back Michal Kadlec, who, along with Baros and Plasil was given a player rating of just two out of 10 by the daily newspaper Sport for his dismal performance against Russia, is likely to be shifted to central defence, at Roman Hubnik's expense, giving a chance to Viktoria Plzen wingback David Limbersky – a former Tottenham Hotspur loanee – on the left.

Senior squad members have done their best to steady the ship. Tomas Rosicky has compared the Czechs' current do-or-die situation to the one they faced in qualification, while Petr Cech has pointed out that the Czech Republic have gone on to enjoy successful tournaments in the past after losing the opening game (at Euro 96, for instance). Currently, however, there is little belief that the Czechs will get out of their group, let alone repeat past successes. Sam Beckwith

 

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