Chris Boothroyd delves into the archive and works out if European Football is a burden to Czech sides looking to retain their title.
Viktoria Plzeň’s qualification for the UEFA Champion’s League group stages for the first time in their history has undoubtedly been a fantastic achievement for the club. Their double victory over Danish Champions FC København – who reached the Last 16 of the Champions League last time out – has promoted the club alongside the European elite, and this autumn and winter Barcelona, AC Milan and BATE Borisov will all be plying their trade in front of Plzeň’s supporters, albeit the matches will be played in the Czech capital Prague, and not at Plzeň’s home stadium.
This is all great and good, and has garnered positive headlines not just for Plzeň but for Czech football in general. The club will receive millions of Euro’s in prize money and thus we could be witnessing the establishment of a strong competitor both financially and domestically to perceived dominance of Sparta Praha and Slavia Praha long-term. All this is surely is in the long-term interests of the club, however looking directly at the short-term, and Champions League qualification may not be the utopia that many see it as.
The domestic form of Viktoria Plzeň this season started off being erratic at best. A scrappy score draw at home to Slovan Liberec was followed by a loss to Bohemians 1905, but following these two results were a 2-0 victory against Teplice and a comfortable 4-2 win against newly promoted Dukla Praha. It may not have been the easiest start to the domestic campaign, but their performances came under criticism from some areas of the Czech press. This uncertainty will surely continue on the back of mid-week efforts against Milan and Barcelona, and the trip to Borisov in late November will surely take its toll as well. But speculation is all well and good, but what do facts and statistics tell us?
Two Czech clubs, bar Viktoria Plzeň, have qualified for the Champions League outright
Sparta Praha and their cross town rivals Slavia Praha. It is a well known theory that the perils of European competition, be it Champions or Europa Leagues, has an effect upon the squad and the results of the teams competing. Normally the ‘higher end’ teams in these competitions have the strength in depth to rotate their players to avoid the fatigue that comes alongside midweek games and a quick turnaround for the following weekend. But there are questions surrounding Viktoria Plzeň’s squad as a whole; can they fight competitively on two fronts? And more importantly, will the Champions League be a distraction that will gift the Gambrinus Liga title back into the hands of their rivals?
I’ve gone back to 2005 and looked into the effect that these excursions in the Champions League have had on the domestic form, be they qualifying matches, or the Group Stages proper to see if there are any trends within the Czech football fraternity that can be applied towards Viktoria Plzeň. I should also note that I have only looked at teams that have made the Group Stages: Slavia and Sparta Praha. Why 2005? Well because magically by my maths both Prague clubs have played a total of fourteen games in the Champions League since the start of the 2005/2006 season up until today.
Sparta Praha’s last foray into the Group Stages saw their defence of the Gambrinus Liga crown crumble into pieces. Sparta slumped to fifth in the table at the end of the 2005/2006 season. They had an overall win percentage of 43.3% from the 30 league games played, but this dropped dramatically to just 16.6% on the back of midweek European fixtures. Similarly that season saw their loss percentage rise from the season average of 36.7% to a staggering 83.3% directly after European competition.
However their cross town rivals fared much better. Not only did they manage to retain their league crown but saw an improvement in fortunes coming off their excursions. A season average win percentage of 56.6% in the 2007/2008 season leaped to 66.4%, proving that perhaps participation in the Europe’s premier competition has a negative effect on form. But – you knew that was coming didn’t you? – Slavia were more likely to draw off the back of Champions League competition: just 30% overall in the Gambrinus Liga, was pumped up to near enough 50% (49.8 if you want to be exact) after Champions League participation. So perhaps everything was not as rosy as you might believe.
Overall in the period that I have looked at the percentages of results achieved by both Prague clubs after playing in Europe are as follows: 35.8% won, 21.4% drawn and 42.8% lost and if we include the two results after Slovan Liberec’s Qualifying Round defeat to Spartak Moskva in the 2006/2007 season, the percentages look like this: 36.3% won, 23.1% drawn and 39.6% lost. Not exactly title defending form looking at those statistics and a break-down of those results based on last season’s table would be place the club upper-mid-table. With last night’s fixture for Plzeň included their record for defeats straight after European competition is practically the same to the Czech average (40% compared to 39.6%): A stat that does not bode well at all for the defending champions.
Pavel Vrba’s side is unbeaten in European competition so far this season, paragraphs have been written on this remarkable feat and I won’t add to that, but a perfect winning record will probably not be in tact in a month’s time. In order to juggle the team, Vrba in my eyes will need to strengthen the Plzeň defence, and potentially bring in another striker to share the burden that will be placed on Duris and Bakos’ shoulders if they are to be able to rotate the starting XI in order to keep players fresh and competitive on both fronts.
As I have said Plzeň’s domestic form has been somewhat mixed, and further proof of that was provided last night as they were easily disassembled by Sparta Praha as they fell to a 2-0 defeat on their own turf. It would be naive to solely blame a European hangover on this, but for all Sparta’s pressing and defensive stability, Plzeň looked a tired team who conceded possession too easily. They are now eight points behind Sparta in the league table after just five games, and in any league that margin is a difficult one to turn around.
Sadly, I feel the Champions League participation, the high profile trips and visits to Barcelona and Milan will probably end up deciding the title in Sparta Praha’s favour. Getting dumped out of the Europa League by Vaslui might just have been a blessing in disguise for the Spartans.