Czechs face powerhouse Italy in key World Cup qualifier

The Italian national football team in Prague, photo: CTK

The Czech national football team’s qualification run for the 2014 World Cup has left a lot to be desired. A loss against Denmark and draw with Bulgaria earlier made it far less likely the Czechs will make it to the tournament next year. On Friday, the squad faces its biggest challenge yet: Euro 2012 runners-up Italy. The Czech team effectively needs to win to keep its chances for next year alive.

Michal Bílek,  Petr Čech,  Vladimír Šmicer,  photo: CTK
A little earlier I spoke to Karel Haring, who covers the world of soccer for Deník Sport.

“Italy represents a very, very tough opponent for the Czech team: their squad ranks as one of the top European teams and I expect the game will not be at all easy for the Czechs. At the same time, it is a game that the Czechs have to approach as ‘must win’. If you do the math it is clear that our squad has to win at least four of the next five matches to have a shot at finishing second in the group. We face Italy twice: tonight, at home, and next time in Italy. And we have to beat them at least once to have any chance of qualifying.”

In terms of strategy what options does Czech coach Michal Bílek have?

Tomáš Rosický,  photo: CTK
“Well, he admitted on Thursday that the key factor will be to make life difficult for Andrea Pirlo. I expect he will rely more on midfielders to clog up the centre field. On the other hand, Pirlo is a very clever player so he can shift to more space on the flanks if he is left no other room. He will be very hard to stop and it will be up to the Czechs to neutralise him.”

Which Czech players will have to step up? Rosický?

“As is often the case with the Czech team the result will depend a lot on how Rosický performs. He is a really crucial player. The bigger problem is, I think, that the Czech team as a whole is not in great form: if you take Selassie or Kadlec at the back, or others like Darida, Jiráček, they haven’t been playing that well, they have been struggling. And Lafata is a very good player by Czech league standards but I don’t think is there yet when it comes to top international level. So much of the burden will be on Rosický: tonight’s performance will depend a lot on him.”

The Italian national football team in Prague,  photo: CTK
What do you predict for one of Italy’s biggest stars Mario Balotelli on Friday? After all, he is a brilliant player but he has also been temperamental in the past and has had himself ejected from matches...

“As you suggest, he is very unpredictable so it is difficult to guess. But I think we will see his better side in Prague. It’s just hard, in advance, to give a clear ‘verdict’!”

Post-match update - Friday 11 pm

The Czech Republic and Italy on Friday played to a 0:0 draw. Although Italy dominated in possession, the Czech squad played one of its best matches in recent memory, creating several scoring chances. Rosický was a presence throughout; Jiraček came close to scoring in the final minutes, hitting the post. Buffon erased an opportunity up close by Kozák. Italy’s Mario Balotelli saw two yellow cards and was sent off. The result, while not a defeat, further weakens the Czech Republic’s chances of qualifying for the World Cup next year.