The Czech national squad couldn't have gotten off to a better start in its debut at the World Cup. From the get-go on Monday the Czech performance was scintillating, and as Jan Velinger reports it didn't take long for the team to score the first goal in front of a sell-out crowd of more than 50,000.
The last time a Czech player took to the field in the World Cup tournament was sixteen years ago, so it was appropriate the Czech squad on Monday came out thirsty: thirsty to win and to put a dent in the US. It didn't take long before the Czechs struck: five minutes in, Pavel Nedved - phenomenal on the night - played to Zdenek Grygera; he set up a perfect cross to none other than Jan Koller. The 2 metre tall player doesn't miss chances like that in front of the net. 1:0 for the Czechs. And, it didn't end there: nine minutes from half-time it was midfielder Tomas Rosicky's turn: usually the playmaker, he chose to shoot this time and what a shot it was: a twenty-five metre corker that screamed past keeper Casey Keller, finding the upper right-hand corner. 2:0.
Jan Koller scores, photo: CTK
The US weren't completely down and out - their players did have a number of chances that could have theoretically "reshuffled the cards": Claudio Reyna had Czech keeper Petr Cech beaten, but hit the post. Later in the game others were also dangerous, Cech was solid.
Tomas Rosicky, photo: CTK
By and large, it really was the Czechs' night: coach Brueckner's team dominated play, playing a far classier 90 minutes. When Rosicky struck again shortly before time, 3:0, it was "game over" for the US.
Afterwards, keeper Petr Cech, describing his thoughts on the game, was asked whether his experience at Chelsea was a benefit:
Petr Cech and Pavel Nedved, photo: CTK
"I think that we have experienced players, they all know if we've got some players playing for good or top European teams and that's important. For me, of course, I've never played the World Cup, the pressure is huge, but I feel pretty comfortable."
The netminder also indicated that if anyone doubted the Czechs' staying power - four key players, after all, are over thirty - Monday's game put those fears to rest.
"I think that we were running better than them the last twenty minutes, we had more energy than the US team and they are younger and very athletic and have good fitness. I think that means that even if we are [older] we can still run!"
Jan Koller, photo: CTK
Cech and others have already cautioned that this was only the first match and that at least one more win will be needed to qualify for the next stage. Also, there was of course one bitter note on the night: Jan Koller injured. Luckily, what appeared at first to be a serious injury to his thigh is not that bad: he is expected to train on Friday after several days' rest. There is also hope the team will see the return of the other first-choice striker Milan Baros in time for Saturday's 2nd Group E match against Ghana.
Those questions aside, Czech fans can certainly be happy: this was the start of a lifetime. The squad under Pavel Nedved came out flying and fulfilled the first part of its mission. If they can keep it up, the Czechs could indeed be a formidable dark horse in later stages of the tournament.