HAMBURG, Germany (June 10, 2006) – At 6-7 and 220 pounds, Jan Koller is easy to focus on. Throw in his international record of 42 goals in 68 caps, and he can’t be ignored – but that is more the rule than the exception with the Czech attack.
Up top next to Koller, the Czech Republic can offer Milan Baros, and behind the forwards are Juventus midfielder Pavel Nedved, Tomas Rosicky – who plays with Koller at Dortmund – and Karel Poborsky, the senior statesman on the roster with 115 caps.
Koller led the team with nine goals in World Cup qualifying, the second most in UEFA. Rosicky followed with seven goals.
“They’re a very good team with some great attacking players,” U.S. Manager Bruce Arena said before his team departed Hamburg for Gelsenkirchen, where the U.S. faces the Czech Republic on Monday, June 12 at 11:55 a.m. ET live on ESPN2 and ussoccer.com's MatchTracker.
“We all know of Nedved from his terrific club career. Koller is a proven goal scorer at every level. Baros is an outstanding forward as well. Rosicky is a real playmaker in a day and age when there are not that many playmakers in the world. Poborsky is a good wide player.”
The injury bug has not been kind to the Czech team. Last September, Koller went down with torn ligaments in his left knee but recovered in time to play a pair of games before his club season ended and is fit for the World Cup.
“Around Koller, you can’t expect that our defenders are going to win headers or the 50-50s with him all the time,” U.S. midfielder Claudio Reyna said. “When the ball goes to Koller they are to go already because they are expecting him to win the header or the flick on.
“Everybody around him has to be prepared for this because they gamble. They gamble that he’s going to win. He’s 6-7 so he’s going to win sometimes.”
U.S. defender Eddie Lewis said that every defender on the U.S. roster is ready for these challenges, but also sees a window for the U.S. when the Czechs gamble.
“In some ways it’s a strength, but at the same time it can also be a weakness,” said Eddie Lewis. “Our job as a team is to contain those guys as a threat and then hopefully take some advantage of their lack of shape and willingness to defend going the other way.”
If healthy, Aston Villa’s Milan Baros (27 goals in 49 appearances) could be the second forward with Koller on Monday.
“Not only will he take you 1-on-1, but he also has the pace to get in behind you,” said U.S. forward Brian McBride who has faced Baros in England. “He’s very good at finding space in the box and getting himself in the right spots to score goals.”
Reports out of the Czech training camp have said that Baros has not trained during the past week and again sat out on June 10. Other reports have said up to five other Czech players have missed training this week.
Backing up Baros and Koller are Marek Heinz, a former teammate of Kasey Keller at Moenchengladbach, and Vratislav Lokvenc, a 6-5 striker who fills a similar role for the team when Koller is not on the field.
Arena and his players, however, said that they have been preparing for the best team that the Czechs can offer.
“You can't believe everything you read in the papers,” Arena said. “If you go by the press reports, three or four of their top players are out. But I would guess on Monday, we're going to see them all on the field. We're planning to play against what we believe is their best 11 players."
While much of the focus has been on Koller and the options in the attack, the Czech Republic has young, talented defenders who are backstopped by Chelsea goalkeeper Petr Cech.
“At the other end of the field they have arguably one of the best goalkeepers in the world,” Arena said. “This is a team that is strong from the back to the front. It’s a well balanced team – there’s a reason they are ranked No. 2 in the world.”