The Czech Republic are facing life without the talismanic Jan Koller as they gear up for their crucial UEFA EURO 2008™ qualifier against the Republic of Ireland in Prague, a match that could have a major bearing on which side progresses from Group D.
Koller scored his 50th international goal in added time on Saturday to round off a 3-0 victory away to San Marino. Yet it was an incident earlier in the game which could have longer-term repercussions as the AS Monaco FC striker was booked just after the hour mark, his second yellow card in qualifying meaning he is suspended on Wednesday. His will be, quite literary, a big loss for the Czechs, whose coach Karel Brückner recently acknowledged: "He is important for us, even when he is not in top form."
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The 2.02m forward has thus far been ever-present in a qualifying campaign that, two-thirds in, sees the Czech Republic second in the section three points ahead of Ireland. He has contributed five goals and, with Milan Baroš struggling with a back injury, Brückner has called up the uncapped Libor Došek. At 1.99m the AC Sparta Praha bears more than a passing resemblance to the man he replaces and is similarly strong in the air, but as goalkeeper Petr Čech conceded: "We do not have a second Koller."
Indeed, the Czechs may play with Baroš as a lone striker in Prague and captain Tomáš Rosický believes the side are capable of adapting. "It is not a necessity to play with a giant in attack," he said. "We will miss Jan, but we have quick players and they could trouble the big Irish defenders. If we have a tall striker we try to play long balls to his head. If we don't, then we must play more combinations."
The Czech Republic were criticised for their lacklustre performance against ten-man San Marino and feel they have a point to prove. "It will be a completely different game against Ireland," said Rosický. "But we will still play for victory." That would leave them six points clear in second place and on the verge of a place in Austria and Switzerland. Much could depend on Čech, who broke Pavel Srníček's record with his 24th international shutout on Saturday, but he insists a "clean sheet on Wednesday will be more important".
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