Michal Bílek told UEFA.com criticism of his Czech Republic team was "deserved" as their UEFA EURO 2012 qualifying campaign took time to spark into life, but believes it "gelled" his squad together and spurred them on to claim a place in the finals.
A 1-0 home defeat by Lithuania in September 2010 was hardly the start Bílek would have hoped for in his first competitive match in charge of his country. With their qualifying campaign stuttering, a 3-0 loss in Norway in a friendly last August merely lowered expectations the EURO '96 runners-up would claim a place in Poland and Ukraine.
Come June, however, the Czechs are cosily ensconced in Wroclaw after arriving from Prague by train, and now Bílek is looking forward to a tournament he describes as "the pinnacle of my career".
UEFA.com: You and your players have faced huge criticism from the media. What influence did the criticism have on the team, and did it serve as a source of motivation?
Michal Bílek: The biggest criticism came after the match against Norway. It was a friendly which we lost 3-0, and the criticism was deserved. We did not play well, and failed in the most basic thing, which was our approach to the match. It wasn't good. It spurred us on and the team gelled. Through to the end of qualifying, and in the play-off, both our performance and results improved.
UEFA.com: This is your first major tournament as a coach. How do you feel as the opening match draws closer?
Bílek: For me, it is an honour to be head coach of the national team, and I've been appreciative of that ever since I was given the job. We've now qualified for the EURO and I believe it will be a great experience not only for my players but also for me. It is undoubtedly the pinnacle of my career.
UEFA.com: The first game is against Russia. How important is it to start well and get a positive result?
Bílek: It's always important to start well. We hope to succeed in this match. I believe the team is well-prepared and the current relaxed state of the squad will be important. Maybe we have our toughest opponent in the first match, the favourite in our group, Russia, who won their last friendly against Italy 3-0. That creates huge respect, but I believe in my team, and believe we will succeed in this match.
UEFA.com: It is a fifth successive EURO for the Czech Republic, which in itself is an achievement. How far can you go? In 1996, the Czechs reached the final. Can you go further and maybe win the tournament?
Bílek: We are not being given much of a chance. I believe that could be to our advantage, because, as I said, the team stabilised at the end of qualifying. We have been building for the last two and a half years, and the team eventually built an understanding and showed their strength.
UEFA.com: What are your initial impressions after arriving in Poland? You have had your first training session. How were you welcomed? Did many fans come to the train station?
Bílek: The arrival at the train station was very nice, because a lot of people were there. We did not expect so many people at our first training session – it surprised us. The players trained well. We are glad we let the first training session be an open one and that we gave the Polish fans the chance to get to know our players better.
UEFA.com: When Tomáš Rosický came out a short time after the others for training, he was warmly applauded by the spectators. How glad are you that he is healthy and with the team?
Bílek: Tomáš figures among the group of our most important players, and whenever we have him in our team, we are much stronger. Therefore, we were worried when he got injured in the last match of the Premier League season. His injury was not serious enough for him to miss the EURO, however. Now he's trained with the team for the first time, he did it well, and I believe he will be ready on Friday.
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