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May 29, 2008

Injuries may prove a barrier for Bruckner

Saturday June 17, 2006 was an important day for the future of Czech football. Having brushed aside the USA with consummate ease, Karel Bruckner's side were being billed as outsiders to make it all the way to the 2006 World Cup final; before a shock 2-0 defeat to Ghana (and later eventual champions Italy) sent them crashing out of the competition in the group stages.

Injuries to key players played its part in Germany, with strikers Jan Koller and Milan Baros bowing out of the Czechs' campaign early, but it looks as though a similar situation will hinder their efforts in Austria and Switzerland.

Captain Tomas Rosicky will miss the tournament due to a persistent hamstring injury which has seen him out of action since January and the Czech squad looks light without him. Having failed to shake off the injury, the 'Little Mozart' will be a big miss for a side who are still coming to terms with the international retirement of Juventus' talisman Pavel Nedved.

Without either playmaker, creativity may be lacking in a talented squad which has failed to live up to its potential in previous competitions. Barring a shock appearance in the final of Euro '96 and making the semis in 2004, the Czechs didn't participate in either the 1998 or 2002 World Cups and went out of Euro 2000 and Germany 2006 in the Group stages. Still, in Karel Bruckner, they have one of the most experienced managers in the game.

Taking over as boss in 2001, Bruckner has been able to use his experiences with the U21 squad and a host of domestic clubs to good effect, bringing through the likes of Petr Cech and Milan Baros. A popular figure in his native country, Bruckner's successes at Euro 2004 (taking the side to a semi-final exit at the hands of eventual winners Greece) have stood him in good stead and the veteran coach can do little wrong in the eyes of the fans.

With the 68-year-old leaving his post in the summer after six years in charge, the players will be keen to repay the faith he has shown in them over an impressive qualifying campaign.

An emphatic 3-0 win over Germany in Munich sealed their qualification with two games to spare and they maintained their 100% appearance record at the Championships over the past decade with the minimum of effort.

Part of a qualifying group in which Germany provided their only real competition, the Czechs have impressed since Bruckner's arrival with their attacking style of play. Never scared to throw players forward, they have a number of attack-minded midfielders keen to get on the scoresheet and often build from a defensive platform set by Tomas Galasek in front of the back four.

Without the influential Rosicky though, a lot of the Czechs' attacking options in the final third will rely on the giant figure of Jan Koller. The 6'7'' Nuremberg striker was the second leading scorer in the World Cup qualifying campaign and has the ability to unsettle any defence with his power and aerial prowess. He scored twice in the recent warm-up game with Lithuania and, like Bruckner, he will be retiring after the tournament is over, so will be keen to show how much the squad missed him in Portugal in 2004.

Alongside Koller, Milan Baros is likely to start after reinvigorating his career under Harry Redknapp at Portsmouth. Scoring three goals in qualifying, Baros is not the most diverse of strikers but complements Koller well in the Czech frontline. The top scorer in Euro 2004, he has the ability to shine on the international stage and the Czechs will pin their hopes on a 'Big man, little man' combination, as they do not have a great deal of depth in the striking department.

While a lot has been made of the Czechs' attacking threat, they also have a solid defence which has conceded only five goals in qualifying and has arguably the world's best goalkeeper behind them.

Chelsea's Petr Cech has spent much of the season on the sidelines with an ankle complaint and, two months before the tournament began, he needed fifty stitches in a facial wound after an accident in training. Still, boasting a great command of his area and agility that outshines most of his contemporaries, Cech is seen as one of the best in the world between the sticks.

If he can stay fit, the Czechs' chances of success increase tenfold. Indeed, the defenders in front of him will be buoyed by his presence and, despite a lack of depth at the back, they still have a solid unit.

Despite being cast aside by Kevin Keegan at Newcastle, David Rozehnal is the rock at the centre of the Czech defence. Currently on-loan at Lazio, the tall defender didn't get much club football in the build up to the tournament, but still played in all of his country's qualifying games.

Fiorentina's Tomas Ujfalusi, usually deployed at right-back by his club, will most likely form the other half of the Czechs' central defensive partnership. The 30-year-old made headlines for the wrong reasons during the qualifiers last year when players celebrated his 29th birthday with a late-night party after they had lost 2-1 to Germany, but on the pitch his form has been impressive. Linked with moves to various European giants in the summer, Ujfalusi has dealt well with Serie A strikers and was an important component of the Czechs' qualification.

Another Serie A star, AC Milan's Marek Jankulovski, is the other player of genuine quality in the Czech backline. Either a left-back or left-winger, Jankulovski has over 60 caps at international level and his experience of two previous European tournaments will be important.

Unfortunately for the Czechs, the number of players they can rely on ends there. They have a number of youngsters in the form of Michal Kadlec, Tomas Sivok, Jaroslav Plašil and Martin Fenin, who can make an impact. But, in reality, their fringe players are behind some of the other teams in terms of ability.

Furthermore, with a blend of experience and youth, Bruckner's chances of success may be hindered by injuries to key players. The influential Rosicky is already ruled out and any other mishaps could see the Czech challenge follow a similar route to that of the World Cup.

With one of the most tactically astute managers around and a squad that has never quite lived up to its potential, the Czechs have every chance of springing a few surprises and will still be expected to qualify ahead of Turkey and Switzerland in Group A.

How far they go after that will rely on Bruckner's dedication to his attacking style without his main man, and just how many more injuries the squad pick up in the group stages.


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