FC Baník Ostrava are one step away from the group stage after a 13-year absence from Europe.
By Josef Ladislav & Ben Lyttleton
The combination of their title triumph and the Czech Republic's successes at UEFA EURO 2004™ mean that FC Baník Ostrava go into the UEFA Champions League with a much changed side, but that has done little to dim their passion for the competition.
Surprise title-winners for the first time in 23 years last season, Baník have sold Czech Under-21 international goalkeeper Jan Lastuvka to FC Shakhtar Donetsk during the summer while defender René Bolf, who impressed in Portugal, has joined AJ Auxerre, but Frantisek Komnacký's side have plenty in reserve.
Not least last season's top scorer Marek Heinz, who chose to stand by his club this summer despite performances at EURO 2004™ which alerted the whole of Europe to his abilities - indeed his free-kick in the 2-1 win against Germany was a strong contender for goal of the tournament.
"I have one more year on my contract here and I am not so old that I need to leave in a hurry," said Heinz, who previously played in the Bundesliga with Hamburger SV. "I'm not disappointed to stay with Baník. The departures have weakened our squad but we have brought new players in and others have stayed."
New arrivals include Slovakian goalkeeper Miroslav König, as well as Marek Zúbek, Jan Velkoborský and Michal Papadopulos - returned from a spell at Arsenal FC - but the key figures in the team are defender Radek Látal, midfield men Martin Cízek and Radek Sloncík, striker Mario Licka and attacking right-back Zdenek Pospech.
These players helped 52-year-old coach Komnacký to carve out an effective team which boasts some of the northern Moravian side's most exciting young talents since the club produced the likes of Udinese Calcio midfield player Marek Jankulovski and Liverpool FC striker Milan Baroš.
Now the coach is hoping that his side can overcome 2001/02 Champions League finalists Bayer 04 Leverkusen to grab a lucrative place in the group stage. That would certainly mark a fantastic return to European competition after a 13-year absence.
None the less, Heinz is remaining cool. "Leverkusen must be favourites, and the proof is their 2002 Champions League performance," he said. "But every match starts at 0-0 and we do have some advantages. It would be a fantastic success if we made it into the Champions League."
The forward is relieved that the first leg is in Germany. "That is an advantage for us," he added. "We will want to play carefully at the back and try and create chances from quick counterattacks. I think we the right players for this style of football."
However, after the first round of domestic games in both Germany and the Czech Republic, it is Leverkusen who will be feeling the more confident. They won their opening Bundesliga fixture 2-1 against Hannover 96, while Baník lost 2-1 at home against FK Teplice.
"It was a bad performance and we need time to improve because of our new players," admitted Heinz. "One thing is sure, all the Czech teams will want to beat us and it will be very difficult for us to repeat the success of last year."
Maybe defeat was a timely wake-up call for Baník, whose splendid club anthem was composed last year by Czech folk singer Jaromir Nohavica. The club's majority shareholder is tennis player Daniel Vacek. With a little luck, his side will be kicking up a racket in the group stage this season.