By Tim Dykes
After the Czech Republic lost to Belgium in a play-off for a place in the 2002 FIFA World Cup, receiving three red cards in the course of a 2-0 aggregate defeat, morale appeared to have sunk to an all-time low. Jozef Chovanec's men had failed to match the standards of the side that reached the final of EURO 96™ - and the coach duly lost his job.
From the ashes of that catastrophe rose the phoenix that is the current Czech side, looking to stretch their unbeaten run to an astonishing 18 games with victory against Austria on Saturday. Former Under-21 coach Karel Brückner took the reins and elevated several of his former charges to the senior side, transforming them into a swashbuckling unit who have dropped just two points in seven UEFA EURO 2004™ Group 3 qualifiers.
The Czechs secured their place in next summer's tournament by defeating the Netherlands 3-1 in September, when Brückner's starting lineup featured just three of the side Chovanec selected for the ill-fated second leg against Belgium in November 2001. One of those survivors, Karel Poborský, was on the scoresheet as the Czech Republic condemned a previously undefeated Dutch side to the play-offs in fine style.
That victory was the finest of six in a qualifying campaign that began brightly in October last year with 2-0 victories in Moldova and at home to Belarus. Next came a gritty draw against the Netherlands in Rotterdam, where Jan Koller scored a precious equaliser. Koller grabbed two more goals in the 4-0 home win over Austria four days later then Moldova and Belarus were also outclassed as the Czechs geared themselves up for the visit of the Netherlands.
Brückner is even able to look positively on the wave of injuries that has swept through his squad ahead of the match against Austria in Vienna. With Tomáš Rosický and Milan Baroš sidelined with long-term injuries, some coaches may have been deflated by news of more withdrawals. But after hearing of Liverpool FC's Vladimír Šmicer and AFC Ajax defender Zdenek Grygera's respective achilles and thigh problems, Brückner said: "I am glad in a way - now the other players will get the chance to show their skills."
Poborský and Tomáš Ujfaluši are suspended for the game, but will travel to the Austrian capital anyway, along with the injured players and their replacements, SK Slavia Praha defender Adam Petrous and FK Teplice newcomer Petr Vorísek. Brückner's message was clear as he added: "
The fight for places in the squad for EURO 2004™ starts now."
If Dick Advocaat's squad are to avoid a repeat of their failure to reach the last World Cup, they must negotiate a November play-off and the visit of Moldova will give his players a chance to stake their claims for a place in the two-legged decider. When the sides met in Tiraspol in April, the Dutch came from behind to win 2-1 with goals from Mark van Bommel and Ruud van Nistelrooij. But with Van Nistelrooij missing from the squad after showing dissent in the Prague defeat and Van Bommel suspended - along with Edgar Davids - morale is low as the play-offs approach. It is a familiar story.
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