Can modest Czechs pull of a surprise at Euro 2016?

Tomas Necid of Czech Republic, right. (Matthias Schrader/AP)

The Czech Republic has twice reached the semifinals of the European Championship, in 1996 and 2004. But the current Czech side more closely resembles the team that competed in England 20 years ago—both surprised many pundits by simply qualifying, overcoming a lack of star power to rub shoulders with Europe’s elite. Manager Pavel Vrba’s roster draws heavily from players who ply their trades in Europe’s less glamorous leagues, but that didn’t stop the Czechs from making the final four in 1996. Can they do it again this summer in France?

ROSTER
Goalkeepers: Petr Cech (Arsenal), Tomas Vaclik (Basel), Tomas Koubek (Slovan Liberec).
Defenders: Theodor Gebre Selassie (Werder Bremen), Roman Hubnik (Viktoria Plzen), Pavel Kaderabek (Hoffenheim), Michal Kadlec (Fenerbahce), David Limbersky (Viktoria Plzen), Daniel Pudil (Sheffield Wednesday), Marek Suchy (Basel), Tomas Sivok (Bursaspor).
Midfielders: Vladimir Darida (Hertha Berlin), Borek Dockal (Sparta Prague), Daniel Kolar (Viktoria Plzen), Ladislav Krejci (Sparta Prague), David Pavelka (Kasimpasa), Jaroslav Plasil (Bordeaux), Tomas Rosicky (Arsenal), Jiri Skalak (Brighton), Josef Sural (Sparta Prague).
Forwards: David Lafata (Sparta Prague), Tomas Necid (Burkaspor), Milan Skoda (Slavia Prague).

COACH
A former player of modest reputation, Pavel Vrba is a five-time Czech coach of the year whose resume includes league titles with Zilina and Victoria Plzen, leading the later side to the group stage of the UEFA Champions League on two occasions. He left Plzen to take over the national team in 2013, having previously served as an assistant with Slovakia.

POSSIBLE FORMATION
4-2-3-1: (GK) Cech – (D) Limbersky, Kadlec, Sivok, Kaderabek – (M) Darida, Pavelka – (M) Krejci, Dockal, Skalek – (F) Necid


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GROUP D SCHEDULE
June 13: vs. Spain in Toulouse
June 17: vs. Croatia in Saint-Etienne
June 21 vs. Turkey in Lens

HOW THEY QUALIFIED
The Czech Republic automatically booked its spot for Euro 2016 by winning a competitive qualifying group ahead of Iceland, Turkey and the Netherlands. The Czechs’ campaign started on a positive note with a win at home against the Dutch, and they followed that up with key victories over Iceland and Turkey. Incredibly, they became one of the first nations to clinch a berth last September, doing so with two games to spare, and with seven wins from 10 games—one of their two losses came after qualification was secured.

TEAM STRENGTHS
Pavel Vrba gets the most out of his team—he inspired them to win a tough qualifying group, despite a lack of star power. This is a fast team, with wing backs Pavel Kaderabek and David Limbersky offering pace down the flanks in attack. Although short of creative options in midfield, he does have a number of combative and defensive midfielders from which to choose.

TEAM WEAKNESSES
Even though they won their group, the Czechs gave up 14 goals in 10 qualifying games, and didn’t keep a single clean sheet. They don’t have a genuine scoring threat up front, and their lack of players who play in Europe’s top leagues could come back to haunt them in a very difficult group.

PLAYERS TO WATCH
Petr Cech: At 34 years old, the Arsenal goalkeeper is at the top of his game and remains one of the best shot-stoppers in the world. A veteran of the national team who serves as the ultimate last line of defence for the Czechs.

Pavel Kaderabek: A rising young star in Czech soccer, Kaderabek can play either on the right side of defence or midfield. An attacking threat going forward.

Borek Dockal: The Czech Republic’s tops scorer in the qualifiers with four goals, Dockal can operate either in the middle or on the right side of midfield. Even with Tomas Rosicky on the squad, Dockal is expected to take on a larger creative and playmaking role.

BURNING QUESTION?
Can Borek Dockal step in for Tomas Rosicky? The Czechs badly need a creative player in midfield to offer them inspiration in attack. With Rosicky having played one once for Arsenal this season, the job will fall to Dockal, who’s just one of several players who manager Pavel Vrba has auditioned for the playmaking role. The Czechs are going to concede goals, which means there’s going to be an even greater need to score them. Dockal is going to be at his best to set up teammates with scoring chances.

PROSPECTS IN FRANCE
You don’t want to write off the Czechs after they qualified from a very difficult group. But the truth is, they have been drawn into the most difficult pool at this tournament, with defending European champions Spain, a tough Croatia side, and Turkey, who they dropped points against in the qualifiers. It’s difficult to see them pulling off a repeat of Euro ’96, or even from four years ago when they made it to the quarterfinals. A place in the Round of 16 would be an accomplishment. More than likely, though, they’re headed home after the group stage.

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