Winners in 2002 and runners-up two years before that, the Czech Republic return to the UEFA European Under-21 Championship finals in Denmark this summer expecting to improve on their last showing in 2007.
Then they were unable to get out of their group, but optimism is high that after winning nine out of ten qualifiers – ending the campaign as the only undefeated side and knocking out holders Germany en route – they could go a lot further this time.
The Czech Republic conceded just four goals to qualify with the best defensive record and the best record overall. Germany came closest to beating them, in a 1-1 draw in their penultimate Group 5 game in Mlada Boleslav, yet Jakub Dovalil's team had already won the section.
Petr Čech was the star in 2002 and his successor between the posts, Tomáš Vaclík, has proved equally vital to the Czech cause. Despite starting the campaign as a largely unknown quantity at second division FC Viktoria Žižkov, his six clean sheets laid the foundations for the run to the finals, including two superb performances in the play-off against Greece which were ultimately decisive.
While Vaclík was shutting up shop at the back, Tomáš Pekhart, on Tottenham Hotspur FC's books as a teenager, supplied the goals. The 21-year-old FK Jablonec forward got nine of his side's 30 goals to finish as the leading scorer in qualifying, despite playing just six matches because of injury. Pekhart did net six times in heavy wins against San Marino, but the striker – reminiscent of Jan Koller at 1.87m tall – also proved his worth against stronger opposition. Witness a goal in each leg of the 5-0 aggregate victory over play-off rivals Greece.
Dovalil has built his squad patiently and for the long term. He led some of this crop, including Pekhart, to the 2006 UEFA European U17 Championship final and then to the U19 semi-finals two years later. His selection for Denmark could be even stronger than the one that ended qualifying, with three players from the seniors eligible to play.
FC Spartak Moskva defender Marek Suchý captained the side before his promotion to the full squad; PFC CSKA Moskva forward Tomáš Necid, with seven goals for the seniors already, remains available for U21 duty; while 18-year-old AC Sparta Praha striker Václav Kadlec scored on his senior debut in October despite never having appeared for the U21s.
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