Bruckner's dark horses are groomed for success

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The Independent Online

With its confectionery castles and coach-party tourists, the Portuguese hill-town of Sintra has been a home from home for the Czech Republic during Euro 2004, lacking only the Danube river and English stag parties to complete its impersonation of Prague.

With its confectionery castles and coach-party tourists, the Portuguese hill-town of Sintra has been a home from home for the Czech Republic during Euro 2004, lacking only the Danube river and English stag parties to complete its impersonation of Prague.

This week, however, their peaceful retreat west of Lisbon has been increasingly besieged as the world's media have converged upon the dark horses who became favourites.

Many expect the Czechs to defeat Greece in tonight's semi-final at Porto's Estadio Dragao and reach their second European Championship final in three tournaments.

A growing awareness of Greece's threat has, however, tempered earlier pronouncements on which of last night's other semi-finalists the Czechs would prefer to meet in Sunday's Lisbon final - "Portugal," said Pavel Nedved, "because the atmosphere would be better."

Now the party line is "one game at a time". This is just one of the old-fashioned philosophies by which the national team operates. The Velvet Revolution may have taken place more than a decade ago but the 64-year-old coach, Karel Bruckner grew up in the Iron Curtain era and his pronouncements on the importance of the collective would not have been out of place in any Soviet satellite.

Nedved, the European Footballer of the Year, Tomas Rosicky and Milan Baros may make a living with big western clubs but under Bruckner, a Slovakian who has never played or coached outside the old Czechoslovakian borders, they are each just another player.

When his assistant, Miroslav Beranek, was asked this week about the fitness of right-back Martin Jiranek, his answer began: "It is a team game and Jiranek is not the only good player. Zdenek Grygera, who came on for him against Denmark, is just as important and did just as good a job." Similarly Bruckner insisted after playing his reserves in the final group game against Germany that there was "no first team", just 23 players of equal value.

Nevertheless, as in the Orwellian world of Bruckner's youth, some players are more equal than others and the recognised first XI were back for the quarter-final. As the media scrum surrounding them at Sintra this week indicated, most equal of all are Nedved, Baros, Karel Poborsky, and the Chelsea recruit Petr Cech.

Nedved is the heartbeat of the team and Poborsky the soul while Baros and Cech respectively put them in at one end and keep them out at the other. Nedved plays tonight under threat of missing the final after Uefa refused to rescind a controversial caution against Denmark.

After he missed the 2003 European Cup final through suspension, the ghost of Alessandro Costacurta, the Italy and Milan defender who missed a string of high-profile events including the 1994 European and World Cup finals, stalks the Czech. While Nedved insisted he will give a "total performance", Vladimir Smicer expressed the concern of his team-mates when he said: "I hope, for him, nothing goes wrong. He is a huge influence for us."

Poborsky, who had an unsuccessful spell at Manchester United, is in the form of his career and, should the Czechs reach the final, will become their first player to win 100 caps. Baros, after a frustrating season at Liverpool, is seeking to become the first player since Michel Platini in 1984 to score in five successive European Championship ties. Cech has more modest ambition. Having been signed when Claudio Ranieri was Chelsea manager, he hopes to have caught Jose Mourinho's eye. "Perhaps he didn't know me before," Cech said. "Now, I hope, he will. It won't be easy for me to be No 1 there but I am ready to fight for my place in the team. Winning this tournament will help."

The Greeks have never beaten the Czechs, before or since their split from Slovakia, but until this month they had never beaten France either, nor won a match in a major finals.

Their passage to the last four has been characterised by the shrewd tactical developments of Otto Rehhagel, their German coach, notably man-marking Thierry Henry with right-back Giorgos Seitaridis in the quarter-final defeat of France.

He will doubtless have a plan to deal with a Czech midfield in which Tomas Galasek holds enabling the three flair players around him to stretch opposition defences. However, Bruckner is no slouch himself when it comes to tactics, the chess aficionado being nicknamed 'The Magus' in the Republic.

Aside from the injured Jiranek - likely to be replaced by Zdenek Grygera - both teams are at full strength with Rehhagal expected to recall both Stelios Giannakopoulos after injury and Zisis Vryzas after suspension. Demis Nikolaidis and either Angelos Basinas or Konstantinos Katsouranis will make way.

Much will depend on a back four which has conceded only three goals in four matches, on Theo Zagorakis maintaining the fine leadership he has displayed from the right flank, and on the counter-attacking flair provided by Giannakopoulos, Vryzas and the full-backs Seitaridis and Panagiotis Fyssas.

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