By Simon Hart
There must be worse ways of celebrating your birthday. Jan Koller, who turned 30 on Sunday, book-ended the milestone with three goals in five days for the Czech Republic to break Pavel Kuka's record as his country's leading scorer with 23 goals.
It has taken just 40 games for Koller to achieve this total, a ratio that more than justifies the Czech tabloid Blesk's description of the 202cm striker as a "goal monster". The BV Borussia Dortmund striker's week began with the Czechs' second-half equaliser in Saturday's 1-1 draw with the Netherlands in Rotterdam and he struck twice again last night as the Group 3 leaders claimed their third win in four UEFA EURO 2004™ qualifiers, 4-0 against Austria at Prague's Letná stadium.
Physique and finesse
Koller's first goal - the second of the night on 32 minutes - underlined that he has finesse in addition to a towering physique. Collecting a Milan Baroš pass, he dribbled into the penalty area where his quick feet carried him past goalkeeper Thomas Mandl before he finished into an empty net. His second, shortly after the hour, was a fierce far-post header.
That made it five in his last seven internationals and earned Koller the standing ovation he received when he departed eleven minutes from time. "
I was only doing my job, nothing more," said Koller afterwards, displaying characteristic humility. "I do not know if I am in the form of my life. I feel in good shape and the goals are simply coming by themselves. I had luck with second goal when the ball bounced off the bar and into the net."
Slow road to the top
Koller's story contrasts interestingly with that of another striker who shone last night, England's Wayne Rooney, for while the Everton FC player is blazing a trail at just 17, inspiring his country to victory over Turkey on his first international start, Koller himself took the slow road to the top. The summer the Czech Republic finished second at EURO 96™, Koller, who was then 23, found himself discarded by AC Sparta Praha, joining Belgian side Sporting Lokeren St-Niklaas Waaslan in a cut-price deal.
By the time he made his goalscoring international debut three years later against Belgium, he was an RSC Anderlecht player and the Belgian league's leading scorer. As if to compensate for lost time, he scored 13 goals in his first 13 games and has been pivotal to the Czech side's fortunes ever since. Czech coach Karel Brückner believes that, at 30, there is still more to come. "I think we have not exploited all his abilities yet, particularly his heading, which is outstanding," he said. "
He is unstoppable when he meets the perfect cross."
His employers at Dortmund must feel the same way too. They expect to confirm tomorrow a one-year contract extension for Koller, keeping him at the Westfalenstadion until 2006. Not a bad way to round off his week's work.
Additional reporting by Ladislav Josef
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