Sports News

Kladno - Pardubice, photo: CTK
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The ice hockey Extraliga play-offs have reached the semi-final stage - but the two big Prague clubs are conspicuously absent; cross-country skier Katerina Neumannova notches up another success to put her in second place at the end of the World Cup season; in football, Sparta's hugely successful season continues, while Slavia begins to waver.

Prague teams fail to reach the semi-finals in ice hockey's Extraliga, but ambitious newcomers Liberec celebrate

Starting with ice hockey. The play-offs in the Czech Republic's top competition, the Extraliga have reached their dramatic closing stage. It's been something of a vintage season this year, in no short measure thanks to the cancellation of the North American NHL season, which has brought many Czech stars back to their home clubs.

As we reported last week, the first team to be knocked out of the play-offs was Sparta Prague - something of a shock result - in their series against unfancied Vitkovice. The Sparta coach, Slavomir Lener, promptly resigned, after an otherwise good season fell apart. Prague rivals Slavia managed to avoid Sparta's 4-1 series debacle, but they didn't fare much better. In Thursday's deciding quarter-final game against play-off newcomers Liberec, they suffered a humiliating 5-1 defeat, after going down 3-0 in the first period. Liberec - with their legendary national team goalie, 30-year-old Milan Hnilicka - will now fight it out in the semis against Pardubice for a slot in the final. This is the first season for years that hasn't seen a Prague side in the top four.

Kladno - Pardubice, photo: CTK
Thursday's other deciding quarter-final duel between Kladno and Pardubice was an altogether much more exciting affair. Kladno, which only two seasons ago came back from relegation, are now in fine form, having benefited hugely from the NHL lock-out, and it's been great to see Kladno gold-medal veterans from the 98 Nagano Olympics, like Pavel Patera and Martin Prochazka in action. But in a thrilling game, Kladno were defeated 3-1 by a resilient Pardubice, and lost the quarter-final series 4-3.

Vitkovice - Zlin, photo: CTK
So the four semi-finalists are Pardubice, who will now battle it out with Liberec, and reining champions Zlin, who faced their tough fellow Moravian rivals Vitkovice on Sunday night, in their first encounter of the semi-final series. The two teams couldn't have been better matched, and when Vitkovice equalized in the last minute of the third period, the game was forced into extra time and was final decided in a dramatic penalty shoot-out, that tested two of the Extraliga's top goalies, Igor Murin and Marek Pinc, to their limits. On Zlin's home ice, Vitkovice snatched victory from the East Moravians, when Zbynek Irgl sent the puck flying between goalie Murin's legs.

Katerina Neumannova ends a great season with silver

Katerina Neumannova (on the left), photo: CTK
To cross-country skiing now, and Katerina Neumannova ended the best season of her career in style, winning the silver in the 15 kilometre skiathlon in Falun in Sweden, 12.3 seconds behind Norway's Marit Bjorgen. This meant that Neumannova managed to repeat her huge success of 2002, ending the season in second place in the World Cup standings. Neumannova described her silver in Oslo last week as the best 30K of her life, and at 32 is in top form.

Football: Success for Sparta and Banik Ostrava while Slavia falters

Sparta - Liberec, photo: CTK
Football now, and while Sparta Hockey Club languishes, their football counterparts could hardly be in better form, a gaping 19 points ahead of city rivals Slavia. But Sparta did have a few nervous moments on Saturday against Liberec, when the fourth placed northern Czechs went into the lead in the 18th minute. It took an accurate shot by Miroslav Matusovic, 9 minutes before the final whistle, to secure Sparta victory.

There was less joy for Slavia, who were unexpectedly beaten 2-1 by the 11th placed small-town team Drnovice, who cheekily broke Slavia's series of seven games without defeat. Slavia are beginning to look shaky, after their equally unimpressive draw against Mlada Boleslav last week. While Slavia struggle, last years champions, Banik Ostrava are definitely back in form, after a disappointing first half of the season. Over the weekend they enjoyed their third victory in a row, this time against Pribram. They're in seventh place, and on current form look set to move further up the table.