Czech Football Resumes

Jablonec stole the Czech football headlines at the weekend with an emphatic 3-0 derby victory over former 2005/6 champions and north Bohemian rivals Liberec. Czech international David Lafata was the hero as he bagged himself a hattrick, keeping Jablonec’s faint championship hopes alive.

I was particularly excited that Lafata may have scored the perfect hattrick*, but on closer inspection of the shoddy Czech sports production it looks as though his first two goals are both off his right foot, which is a real shame:

League leaders Plzen recorded a home win over Hradec Králové, while Sparta kept pace away at Ostrava.

*left foot; right foot; header.

Kick-Off For Czech Football’s Spring Season

This coming weekend Czech football finally emerges from its frustrating three month hibernation with a Friday evening kick-off between Slavia Prague and Brno. For once, I thought I’d attempt to dissect the Gambrinus League table as it stands in order to provide some kind of platform for the fun and games we can look forward from now until May.

I should admit that my football predilection is rooted in club legacy and socio-political history rather than as score speculator or transfer rumour-mongerer, but the peculiar patterns in Czech football during the autumn has drawn me to attempt some examination. A quick glance at the Czech league table will reveal some obvious incongruities, with the unfamiliar Viktoria Plzeň looking down from the top, and Gambrinus league ever-presents Brno and Slavia Prague dancing with the down-and-outs, desperate to evade a descent into the void.

How the spring season pans out is anybody’s guess. Czech football’s November to February hiatus and inferior purchasing power means that the clubs’ squads have a vastly different look to those that competed during the autumn. As such, it is not easy to predict who will continue or halt their previous form.

Of the title challengers, all three of Plzeň, Sparta Prague, and Sigma Olomouc have sold their best players over the winter, so it seems likely that the club that will prevail will be the one that can adequately procure talent and plug the gaps. Already that rules out Olomouc, ten points behind leaders Plzeň, who only last week cashed in on the Gambrinus League’s leading scorer Michal Hubník, as he jigged his merry way to Poland’s Ekstraklasa with Legia Warsaw.

This leaves an absorbing two-horse race between title holders Sparta and free-scoring, 2009/10 Czech Cup Champions, Viktoria Plzeň. Of course, it could have been done and dusted by now, with Plzeň ceding a one time 12-point advantage, now only a buffer of four. Nonetheless, the spring season is a real dash to the finish with only 13 rounds of games remaining. Plzeň have already travelled and won at Sparta’s Letná, and so they have more than a good chance of clinging on for their first ever league title.

Sparta 0 - 1 Plzeň

The winter break has seen Plzeň lose their central defensive partnership of Tomáš Rada and Jakub Navrátil to Turkish side Sivasspor, but the club’s revered coach Pavel Vrba has replaced them with the useful Aleš Neuwirth and Petr Trapp from Baník Ostrava and Slavia Prague respectively. In addition, the talented international Martin Fillo has returned from Norway in pursuit of glory with his hometown club.

Sparta Prague, meanwhile, will be determined to retain their crown in the hope of clinching a Champions League place following this season’s successful run in the Europa League. The task has been made all the harder by the sale of their best player and midfield general Juraj Kucka to Genoa, and leading scorer Bony Wilfried to Vitesse Arnhem. Sparta’s reinforcements include the talented young striker Tomáš Pekhart from Jablonec, and centre-back Tomáš Zapotočný, who led Slovan Liberec to league glory in 2005. While Sparta have the talent and the cash to overhaul Plzeň, they have been dealt a blow with the suspension of star strikers Kadlec and Pekhart following the farcical shirt deception episode. Depending on your view of cup-runs as a distraction or facilitator, Sparta also have a crunch Europe League tie with Liverpool to contend.

Down at the bottom, we’ve an ugly scrap to look forward to amongst a number of clubs. Ustí nad Labem look as though the step up to the Gambrinus League has been a bit too great and I would expect them to drop back. Relegation for Slavia Prague would be unthinkable, and a disaster for the league, but it remains a real danger given their fiduciary predicament, however they still possess the talent to pull away from danger. After that you can take your pick from the relegation contenders all the way up to Bohemians 1905. It would be a shame to lose second-bottom Zbrojovka Brno, but their pitiful showing during the autumn does not justify their inclusion at the top table.

The title will fall in the hands of the team that can hold it together over the final few weeks of the season. It should prove to be a thrilling finale to a surprising season in Czech football, and one that might shape the league for a number of seasons to come. Many would like to see the talented Plzeň coach Vrba rewarded for his bold, attractive style that won him plaudits in the Corgon Liga with MSK Žilina, and would see a new, provincial champion crowned in a Prague-dominated Gambrinus League. As you can see from the picture below, Vrba has the look of a man who has had it all planned out from the very beginning, so I’m siding with Plzeň on this one.

Pavel Vrba Plzen Coach

End Of The Road For FC Vítkovice

Ostrava-based FC Vítkovice are close to insolvency having withdrawn from the MSFL, the third tier of Czech football. Vítkovice has a 85/86 federal Czechoslovak league championship title to its name, in addition to a UEFA Cup quarter final appearance in 87/88 (losing to Espanyol), so this club has pedigree no matter what you might think of their delightfully understated crest.

Hailing from Czech’s 3rd largest city of Ostrava, Vítkovice is the home of the Czech Republic’s heavy industry. The relatively large Vítkovice Arena competes with the blast furnaces, iron and steel works that dominate the skyline.

It seems a shame to lose a big city team such as Vítkovice, despite having been long overshadowed by their more popular rivals, Baník Ostrava. While they have lost their senior men’s side, Vítkovice’s board are doing what they can to salvage their large youth set-up, the loss of which could be hugely detrimental to Moravian football, and specifically to Baník, who poach the most promising talent.

Although Vítkovice dropped from the Gambrinus Liga some time ago, few other Czech teams can match their history of achievements, their catchment area or stadium. Their disappearance, seemingly under-reported even within the Czech media, strikes me as a great loss. With any luck the club will continue in some capacity, and perhaps we will see a senior side reincarnated further down the Czech football pyramid.

Sparta Prague Hit By Identity Crisis

Sparta Prague were caught with their pants down earlier this week fielding three players for a friendly after having withdrawn the trio from international duty due to injury.

In order to conceal their identities, Tomas Pekhart, Vaclav Kadlec and Croatian defender Manuel Pamic were omitted from the team sheet for the mid-winter friendly vs Zenit St Petersburg, and took the field wearing the named shirts of other squad members.

Suspicions were raised after Czech journalists covering the game noticed that holding midfielder Martin Abena had been shunted up top to play in an incongruous target-man role. Sparta’s intricate subterfuge was ultimately foiled upon the realisation that Cameroonian Abena had morphed into a 6’4” tall, caucasian youth, baring a striking resemblance to the Czech international striker, Tomas Pekhart.

Funny But Bad

While I am certain that almost all leading European clubs deceive national associations into believing players have succumbed to injury, fatigue, and rare tropical diseases in the days leading up to meaningless international fixtures, Sparta have somewhat unreasonably ramped up the trickery with this latest ruse.

My deep love for Czech football largely stems from the country’s propensity for comedy scandals, however Sparta Prague’s latest action only highlights their curt regard for the Czech FA, which harbours pernicious undercurrents for the Czech game. This is not the kind of behaviour the Czech football authorities want to see from the most influential club in the country, and as such I think (and hope) they will come down hard on the club. Sparta’s less-than-watertight justification that all three players recovered ahead of time, and that the club did not have the relevant shirts in preparation for the match, only amplifies Sparta’s contempt for the CMFS.

Interestingly, the Croatian FA took an insouciant stance on the incident, noting only that they were pleased for Pamic that he made such a swift recovery.

However, Vladimir Smicer, the Czech National Team Sports Manager, was less pleased. The former Liverpool and Slavia Prague legend is looking for a large fine for Sparta and a domestic ban for the three incognitos (leaving Pekhart and Kadlec available for Sparta’s huge Europa League encounter with Liverpool).

Sparta will face the Czech FA disciplinary committee in the coming days. Here is a taster of the event starring Captain Heartbreaker as Sparta’s representatives.

Czech Football Forced To Sell Its Ambition

Record breaking transfer sums have snatched the recent football headlines as Europe’s largest clubs exchange players for vast sums of money. Cast your eye over some of the smaller nations however, and the contrast is stark.

While Chelsea acquired another star striker to reinforce their squad as we approach the 2011 denouement, Czech champions Sparta Praha have sold their leading marskman Bony Wilfried to Vitesse Arnhem for a meagre €4million.

On the surface this appears a rather poor bit of business. Sparta intend to win the Gambrinus League each year and in order to overhaul Autumn’s surprise package Plzen, one would expect them to hold on to key players in their search for the title. In spite of this and their forthcoming lucrative tie against Liverpool in Europe, Sparta have cashed in on both Wilfried and their Slovakian midfield lynchpin, Juraj Kucka.

However Sparta will be pleased with their winter business. In Czech football €4million is quite a windfall, which underlines the wealth disparity between the EPL juggernaught and the Gambrinus League. What plays in Sparta’s favour is that (with Slavia out of the financial picture) the talent vacuum is filled by the best of Sparta’s rivals. In this instance, fourth-placed Jablonec have allowed the league’s second leading striker Tomáš Pekhart to join Sparta on loan until the end of the season.

Tomáš Pekhart at Jablonec

Young Pekhart has bagged 11 goals already this season pushing Jablonec into fourth spot as an outsider for the title. Not any more. It seems quite a peculiarity that a championship rival appears only too happy to adhere to Sparta’s needs. It is similar to Newcastle allowing Andy Carroll to join Liverpool, but without£35million ever entering the equation.

Jablonec coach Komnácky justifies the transfer by reconciling that Jablonec are a “provincial” club in austere times. Sparta have no option to buy, so presumably Jablonec are hoping Pekhart’s value will heighten at Sparta and they can cash in over the summer.

It seems unthinkable that clubs could sell their ambition this way but such is the financial predicament of Czech football. Plzen are chasing their first ever title and look to be locked in a two way battle with Sparta over the Spring, yet they have also sold key performers despite their unexpectedly favourable position.

Czech football’s poverty coupled with its enforced 3 month winter break means that clubs in the Gambrinus League are forced to break-up and rebuild squads twice each season. The Spring first XI often has a wildly different complexion to that seen during Autumn, which prohibits any consistency and obstructs the development of the Gambrinus League and its players. It is an infuriating reality to adjust to when following the have-nots of European football.