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.
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.