It’s hard to truly believe the moment has come, but on Monday afternoon Scotland will walk out at Hampden for our first game at an international final in 23 years. The build-up has ramped up significantly since we completed our triple header of World Cup qualifiers in March, and two positive displays against the Netherlands and Luxembourg in warm up friendlies have only added fuel to the fire.
Clarke certainly looks to have got the boys raring to go for what will be a difficult set of games with Scotland ranked the lowest seeds in group D. Our first opponents the Czech Republic are by no means world beaters however, with the opening matchday posing as an opportunity for Scotland to get some points on the board and lay down a marker to our competitors. A new tournament format which was introduced in the 2016 finals also means there are many ways Scotland can progress to the later stages of the competition, a feat which the Tartan Army have never laid eyes on.
Such a long-awaited return to the European Championships for Scotland has not been met with any level of unfamiliarity with regards to our Group D opposition, as you only have to look back at our most recent Nations League campaign to see our last clash with Jaroslav Šilhavý’s side.
Only the second of our two fixtures with the Czech’s can really be used when looking at what to expect from them at EURO 2020, as their first choice squad for the match in Olomouc was forced to isolate due to a coronavirus outbreak in their camp. A second-string squad was roped together on this occasion and Scotland defeated them 2-1 on what was a rather uncomfortable night for Clarke’s men. The match at Hampden was free from any covid disruption and was a far better measure for how we may cope with a full-strength Czech side. Thankfully, we also won this due to an early goal from Ryan Fraser and meant we took maximum points of the Czech’s during this campaign.
These defeats were not enough to derail the Czech’s ambitions of promotion to the Nations League A League as they won all their other matches against Slovakia and Israel to clinch the top spot, leapfrogging Scotland on the final matchday after we failed to win in Israel.
Moving into 2021 and a new qualification campaign, their triple header was a mixed bag of results. In their opening fixture they swept aside Estonia with ease, crushing them 6-2 with West Ham’s Tomáš Souček netting a hattrick. Next, they travelled back to Prague where they drew 1-1 with Belgium who are currently ranked the number one side in the world, another positive result despite missing a couple of regulars. Their final match was against the Welsh in Cardiff which was an incredibly eventful night. The Czech’s spent the majority of the second half down to 10 men after Patrik Schick was given his marching orders just after the break, however Wales were also reduced to 10 men later in the half. The Welsh went on to win the game however one couldn’t blame the Czech’s for feeling hard done by, as the difference between the sides was largely due to some outstanding last ditch defending by the Welsh back line, coupled with a sublime cross from talisman Gareth Bale who managed to pick out the smallest man on the park, Dan James. The Manchester United winger’s headed goal was enough to ensure Bale & Co. took all three points on the night.
With regards to their recent friendlies and EURO build up, the Czech’s will have mixed emotions. Their first game was a challenging one and they suffered a hefty 4-0 defeat to the Italian’s, who are going to the EURO’S themselves with high hopes of progressing through the competition to the latter stages under Mancini and opened the tournament with a 3-0 win over the Turks in Rome. They bounced back from this loss with a 3-1 win over Albania to ensure they finished preparation for the EUROs on a high.
Although one can choose not to, it is best to reserve some judgement when considering how a team may perform at a finals based on their build-up. You don’t have to look too far to see teams which have over or under performed during a summer championship based previous form.
This Czech squad is different to those from years gone by, given it could be argued they lack players of a certain prestige. Looking through the squad there isn’t really any standouts or household names. You don’t have to think too hard before previous heroes of the Czech national team come to mind, such as 2003 Ballon d’Or winner Pavel Nedvěd, Chelsea legend and all time cap holder Petr Čech and all time Czech goal scorer Jan Koller.
Collectively however, the Czech’s have a strong squad across the board with a smattering of players who play across Europe’s top leagues. Two players who the Tartan Army may be more familiar with since their transfers to the Premier League are Tomáš Souček and Vladimír Coufal. Both signed for West Ham United last year and have enjoyed their season under David Moyes, who guided them to an impressive 6th place finish and was unlucky not to secure Champions League football for the London club finishing only two points behind 4th place Chelsea.
Souček featured in every league game for the Hammers this season and the box to box midfielder notched 10 goals during the campaign. For the Czech national team he is deployed much the same, and since the squad isolation incident back in September he has played the full 90 in every competitive game for the Czechs. He is usually accompanied in the middle by Spartak Moscow’s defensive midfielder and rumoured West Ham target Alex Král, and Hertha Berlin’s Vladimír Darida who tends to take up a more attacking position and has captained the team on numerous occasions. Šilhavý usually sets up his side in a 4-2-3-1, but even if he does make slight alterations to the formation it is likely these three will be going toe to toe with Clarke’s men in the middle.
Darida is actually only one of three players in the squad who was involved with the Czech’s at EURO 2016. The other two are experienced goalkeeper Tomáš Vaclík and Hoffenheim right back Pavel Kadeřábek. Vaclík will likely be between the sticks at Hampden, with the Sevilla shot stopper regularly favoured over Bremen goalkeeper Jiří Pavlenka and with his squad number listed as no. 1. Kadeřábek is less likely to grab a place in the starting line-up however, with Coufal the right back of choice in recent games.
Up top will likely be striker Patrik Schick, a well-rounded forward who has 26 caps and 11 goals for the Czech national team at 25yrs old. Having moved from Roma to Bayer Leverkusen last summer for a fee just shy of £24m, the striker has had a steady first season at the BayArena scoring 13 goals across all competitions helping them to a Europa League spot.
During the March qualifiers he scored against Estonia, his first international goal since 2019 with injury and coronavirus ruling him out of their 2020 fixtures. He also got in on the goals in their EURO warmup match with Albania opening the scoring, and as the only member of the squad who has a goal tally into double digits he will be certainly one to watch.
There is much excitement and anticipation around promising youngster Adam Hložek. At only 18yrs old he is to the Czech’s what Billy Gilmour is to Scotland and was a welcome inclusion to their EURO 2020 squad for many Czech fans. His appearance in the Albania friendly was only his third cap for the national team, having worked his way up through the age groups. He could have been involved more since his first two caps back in September and October, however quarantine and injury meant he missed a large chunk of last season not only for the national team but also Sparta Prague. The attacker still impressed in the 19 league matches he played, scoring 15 goals and 8 assists. It is no surprise therefore he has captured the interest of many big clubs throughout Europe with his performances and could be a massive player for the Czech’s this summer and beyond.
A notable absence from the squad is Lukáš Provod, who’s knee injury will see him ruled out for most of 2021. He has had a successful season with Slavia Prague who enjoyed a Europa League cup run and a league title, and has started every game when available for his national side since his first cap last year. He will no doubt be a miss.
This is something Steve Clarke will likely have spent a few late nights looking into. The Czechs are the lowest seeded of our opposition so if Scotland are to advance from the group a positive result on matchday one is near unavoidable.
One area highlighted by Tomas Danicek who was a guest on The Tartan Scarf podcast discussing the match, is how the Czechs often struggle to adapt when a match is not going their way. While discussing his national side and manager Jaroslav Šilhavý, he expressed doubts over whether he would be able to change tactics mid match and how he often seems to lack a plan B when a match is not going favourably for the Czechs.
He also noted how the Czechs enjoy being underdogs in ties instead of being the favourite. This coupled with the fact that many Czechs regard Scotland as a potential bogie team means that they are approaching this fixture with a bit of apprehension despite Scotland being the lowest seeded team in the group.
When looking for areas on the pitch where Scotland could expose the Czechs, many have pointed to centre back as a position of weakness. Across the park it can be admitted they have players of quality in most positions, however this isn’t the case for the centre of defence. Sparta Prague’s Ondřej Čelůstka has started the last five matches at centre back and would likely have been partnered by Ondřej Kúdela of Slavia Prague, had his appeal not been thrown out for his racial abuse of Rangers midfielder Glen Kamara in their Europa League tie. His absence has seen Bristol City’s Tomáš Kalas fill in beside Čelůstka for the two warm up friendlies, with manager Šilhavý hoping the two have somewhat gelled during these two performances.
Critics have pointed out the lack of quality in this position as well and have noted how they are vulnerable to quick runs in behind the centre backs. This was exactly how Scotland scored at Hampden against the Czechs in our 1-0 win, with Dykes linking up with Fraser who’s run in behind gave us an early lead.
With the addition of Adams to the mix, Scotland have plenty of options who could target this vulnerability. Advancing runs from our full backs, and even Kieran Tierney should he get the chance to bomb forward, could make the most of opportunities to get the ball in into this area of the pitch.
As opening fixtures go, Scotland can be happy with the Czech Republic. Lying outside of European footballs elite, they are more than beatable but Scotland will have to be at their best if they are to overcome their opponents. Both teams have strong midfields and there could be plenty of battles all over the park. Who wins the battles out on the flanks could also be key, with both sides having quality fullbacks who will look to give their sides plenty of width.
The recent form of Andrew Robertson and Kieran Tierney has certainly showed the pair have finally got to grips with their ‘dual-left-back’ system, and it could be a long 90 minutes for the Czech’s if they keep this up.
As mentioned, the weakness at the heart of their defence is an area we must try to exploit, and there’s no reason Scotland shouldn’t approach this game with confidence to attack as Clarke has plenty of options he can pair up top and who like to link up and run in behind.
All the noise from the Scotland camp has been pleasing to hear. The boys seem very determined to show that the Scots aren’t just content with qualifying and want to prove ourselves on one of footballs biggest stages. Clarke has instilled this new mindset amongst our players, and will be hoping come Friday the squad will be travelling to Wembley with 3pts already on the board.
Whatever the result the Tartan Army will still be proud, finally getting the opportunity to witness their national team at a major finals for the first time in 23yrs. For youngsters like myself, it will be the first time ever. With the squad looking their best for the first time in many years, it’s easy to get carried away with thoughts and dreams of advancing beyond the group stage. But let’s take it one game at a time though, and start the competition on the right foot.