Baros does his bit for Mersey pride

Czech Republic v Denmark: The Liverpool striker with a say in the tournament makes up for lost time
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The Independent Online

It was just a teasing observation from the Liverpool midfielder Vladimir Smicer as he departed the Estadio Jose Alvalade on Wednesday night amid the frenzied clamour of his nation's followers. Yes, he expected that a Merseyside man would return home clutching the Golden Boot for the tournament's top scorer, but that it would be his Czech and Anfield team-mate Milan Baros, not Everton's Wayne Rooney.

It was just a teasing observation from the Liverpool midfielder Vladimir Smicer as he departed the Estadio Jose Alvalade on Wednesday night amid the frenzied clamour of his nation's followers. Yes, he expected that a Merseyside man would return home clutching the Golden Boot for the tournament's top scorer, but that it would be his Czech and Anfield team-mate Milan Baros, not Everton's Wayne Rooney.

Smicer could not have known how events less than 24 hours later would wretchedly conspire against Rooney to strengthen that claim.

Nine months ago, Baros's Liverpool career, still in its infancy and, in truth, still offering considerable scope for improve-ment after he had arrived as the (Banik) "Ostravan Maradona", suffered a hiatus following a broken ankle. Now the broken bone is on the other foot, so to speak. Rooney's tournament is over. Baros, boasting three goals - one behind Rooney and Ruud van Nistelrooy - is on a roll.

Crucially, so are his team, who have such strength in depth that the second-stringers can eject Germany from the tournament - a humiliation that left the beaten coach, Rudi Völler, with no alternative but to do the decent thing.

"Milan has had a lot of bad luck because he was injured for so long last season," said Smicer. "Then he came back, played well, and was dropped by Liverpool, and doesn't know why. Now his confidence is back and he has been in absolutely superb form for us [the Czech Republic]. He has scored five or six goals for us in the last few games."

The region that brought us Martina Navratilova can never be dismissed in the sporting arena. Winners of these championships in 1976, when their assistant coach was a certain Dr Jozef Venglos (whatever happened to him?), they were defeated (by Germany) finalists at Wembley in 1996.

"Dark horses", some pundits referred to this generation before the championships began. After three games, Karel Bruckner's team could be considered classy stallions in more senses than one. They were restricted to sexual abstinence for several weeks, and one can only imagine how much better they will perform after some "psychological freeing up", as the team's medic has coyly referred to visits from wives and girlfriends. "It is not about sex," he added. Whatever you term it, that is the squad's "reward" for reaching the quarter-finals and a confrontation tonight with Denmark in Porto.

Anyway, it will make a change to be in close proximity to their own wives and partners. Their English counterparts have been staying at the Czech team hotel in Sintra, just outside Lisbon. When asked whether he was surprised by this, a stony-faced Bruckner muttered several sentences. However, if we expected some witty riposte about Posh Spice we were disappointed. The team's technical director, doubling as an interpreter, finally informed us gravely: "Mr Bruckner says it is not a problem." One look at him, and no one would imagine that it would be.

What Bruckner did have a problem with is assertions that he deployed a sub-standard team against Germany. "We do not have a B team or an A team. All of our players are part of the same team," he insisted. Which doesn't quite explain why the goalkeeper Petr Cech, Tomas Rosicky, Pavel Nedved, Karel Poborsky, Jan Koller and others, none of whom were selected to start on Wednesday, will return for the quarter-final.

Bruckner was speaking before training last week at the Stadio Uniao Sintrenese, a facility something akin to a Dr Marten League club ground. The coach, who with his heavily lined, parchment features and lugubrious expression reminds you of an elderly Apache chief, goes by the epithet "The Magician" because of his perceived wizardry when it comes to his orchestration of the Czech team.

He doesn't give too much away; but in his own studious manner, he has harnessed a squad who include some exceptional talent to outstanding effect. He is also regarded as technically astute. "We were losing 2-1 against Holland when Smicer came on [after 24 minutes, for a full-back]," explained Cech. "That allowed us to put more into attack and we eventually turned the game around. One of the qualities of our coach is his ability to sense what's right tactically and to impose the right strategy."

Unlike England, the Czech Republic have been quite content for supporters to watch their players prepare. They do so enthusiastically, applauding every five-a-side goal lashed home by the colossus Koller, every intricate move of their beloved midfielder and captain, Nedved, the 2003 European Footballer of the Year. The latter may not have enjoyed the most auspicious of seasons with Juventus, but his presence here shines a mighty beacon of inspiration on those around him.

"Pavel had a season at Juventus which, well, wasn't that bad, but unfortunately Juventus have been below their best," reflected Cech. "People said, 'Oh, he's won the Ballon d'Or and so he has to have great games every week'. But I would say he's a player who will die to win."

Would that England had such a custodian as Cech. In the two games in which he has played - against Holland and Latvia - the 22-year-old has demonstrated precisely why Chelsea have acquired him from the French club Rennes. The word is that he is apparently destined to become the No 1 goalkeeper at Stamford Bridge. Yes, even ahead of the Premiership's best goalkeeper, Carlo Cudicini. Cech prefers to maintain his own counsel on that notion, but will say: "What I expect to do is play in a great atmosphere, for a club with a big ambition to win the Premier League, and the Champions' League after the elimination in the semi-finals this year. You expect a club of that size to want to win these trophies. They have great players, like Frank Lampard, who is among the best players in the world. He had fantastic season and in all the games here with the England team he's played very well."

For the moment, tonight's game takes precedence. It is a contest in which Cech believes that Baros and Koller can combine lethally to condemn the Danes. "Milan works well with Koller. We look for Koller with longer passes and Milan's there to collect the balls from him," he says. "They have a good understanding. But that's not our only tactic. We have lots of players who can use the ball. We are a strong attacking team."

As we have seen - particularly with a player like Baros, who is determined to win the battle of the young Merseyside marvels, with the Golden Boot his reward.

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