Michal Bílek has divided public opinion since his appointment as Czech Republic national team coach in October 2009. Bílek has had a strong band of critics over the previous two years, myself included. But the 43 year old was given the brief of qualifying for Euro 2012 and he has delivered, somehow.
Bílek started his tenure with a forgettable pair of defeats against UAE and Azerbaijan in November 2009, it was a reminder of how far the Czechs had fallen. They were ranked 2nd in the FIFA rankings in 2006 but they couldn’t even muster second place in this three team tournament held in the Middle East.
It took five attempts before Bílek tasted his first win as boss; a 4-2 victory over the USA was then followed up with a morale boosting 4-1 victory over Latvia. A welcoming result just before the European Championship qualifying campaign that was to get underway.
Spain, Scotland, Lithuania and Liechtenstein were drawn alongside the Czechs in a five team qualifying group. A home match against Lithuania would be up first for Bílek, a winnable game it would seem, but an insipid attacking display and a Milan Baros missed penalty would see the Czechs defeated 1-0.
Next up was a home tie with Scotland and a double header with Leichtenstein, nine points needed and surprisingly nine points were obtained. I was at the Scotland game here in Prague, and while the Czechs won the game 1-0 they were far from convincing. The stadium emptying 4-6-0 tactics employed by Scotland manager Craig Levein was a monumental mistake, the Czechs were there for the taking but Levein came to Prague looking to defend for 90 minutes and a nick a point.
The performances under Bílek were not easy on the eye and sometimes painful to watch. I got the impression Bílek was just steering the ship as opposed to choosing the crew and the destination. It felt like the squad needed an injection of new talent and energy to reinvigorate the side or a new leader who could motivate and inspire the current bunch.
The Kirin Cup in Japan saw the Czechs take on Peru and Japan in a small three team friendly tournament, which actually turned out to be a significant milestone, despite all three games ending 0-0 draws with the entertainment value of a public information film. Debuts were given to Václav Pilař and Theo Gebre Selaisse, who had been arguably been the best performers in the Czech league over the last 12 months and fully deserved their call up.
Despite their low key performances against Japan and Peru, Bílek was confident of improvements “I was wondering how we would play without some of our regular players such as Tomas Rosicky. But our youngsters worked hard today and we should be a good team by the autumn.”
The next qualifying game was a chance for Scotland to exact some revenge and possibly start the game with a recognized striker. But before the Czechs travelled to Hampden Park, Bílek tried his best to destabilize the team by fielding a horribly compact and unorganized 4-2-2-2 system in a friendly game in Norway. The Czechs were humped 3-0 in what can only be described as the worst performance by Czech team in well over a decade.
Following the Norwegian debacle the media and public were calling for Bílek to resign, 9 out of 10 people wanted to see the back of Bílek before the Scotland qualifier came around on September 3rd. But Bílek survived and managed to take a point from Scotland to keep their rivals at arms-length.
Bílek’s autumn prediction was actually starting to look realistic as they followed up the Scotland draw by putting four past Ukraine during a friendly in Prague – it was the first time I saw a smile on the usual stony faced Czech coach.
With the results of subsequent qualification games following a predictable pattern it meant the Czechs need to win in Lithuania to seal the play-off spot. I must admit I wasn’t sure which team would turn up, but sure enough the Czechs cruised past Lithuania 4-1 and Bílek seemed to have found a settled team.
The playoffs saw the Czechs take on an erratic Montenegro, who were a shadow of the side that had started the campaign with 3 wins and a draw. Recent defeats against Wales and Switzerland had dampened their hopes of making next summer’s tournament.
The Czechs and Bílek secured qualification with a 3-0 aggregate win over Montenegro, wonderful goals from Václav Pilař and Petr Jiráček were a sign of the new Czech side which is emerging. Not to mention the marauding right back Theo Gebre Selassie, who seems to improve with every game.
Captain Tomas Rosicky is also playing with a freedom of years gone by, but as good as the Czechs were in seeing off Montenegro, the game against Norway still weighs heavy on the mind, you would hope it’s a mistake that is not to be repeated.
While Bílek and his staff deserve credit for qualifying for Euro 2012, the campaign itself was far from convincing and was aided by the inability of teams around them rather than a scintillating run of form. It remains to be seen whether Michal Bílek is a lucky manager or a shrewd one. Well, he gets one more throw of the dice in Poland and Ukraine next summer.