BY George Utley

19 Jun

England v Czech Republic - 10 Pub Talking Points

Thanks to the bountiful torrent of games, all we England fans have to do is survive the stark reality of Monday before we’re back in the pub again.

It’s absolutely all to play for in Group D with the table tighter than the 50p slot in Gary Neville’s forehead.

We All Relate To Our Czech Mates

Two nations with plenty in common – a devotion to pints and a generation of fans inspired by tournaments fast fading into ancient history.

Both teams share nostalgic memories of Euro ’96, where the Czechs made it to the final, and Euro 2004 where Milan Baros (5 goals) and Wayne Rooney (4 goals) burst onto the scene, promising greater days to come that never materialised.

England may be second favourites, but you wonder how much of that is down to home advantage. The team is running on potential, which looking around the tournament, doesn’t feel like as scarce a resource as we’d hoped.

How Are They Playing?

England played the last round with all the intensity of a Blue Planet box set. We know Southgate looks to other sports for inspiration, and on Friday night it seemed to be the ponderous, shuffling world of snooker.

It was as if they had prepared to meet the Scotland who played the Czechs at Hampden and found themselves up against the Scotland from Bannockburn.

The match threw up far more questions than it answered, leaving Gareth and his bootroom nerds plenty of philosophising to do between now and Tuesday.

Being optimistic, it’s kept expectations mercifully in check, there are a job lot of options on the bench that aren’t Ricky Lambert or Danny Welbeck and there’s time before the knock-out stages (90 minutes + injury time, to be precise) to stumble upon a first XI capable of bringing it home.

Tinkering Time

England could use their famed strength in depth here, with squad players coming into contention whether by returning from injury, or just by sitting out the communal brainfart against Scotland.

While the defence did themselves no harm in keeping a clean sheet against Marvel’s latest Saltire-clad comic book heroes, if he’s fit England should welcome Harry Maguire back with open arms.

Just as Man United’s end of season rot coincided with his injury, England badly lacked someone brave enough to step out from the back or attempt a penetrative pass whenever Scotland slotted into their 10-man phalanx off the ball.

England’s horseshoe of doom - Pickford to James to Stones to Mings to Shaw and back again – was the mind-numbing result.

He’ll also be very welcome at the other end of the pitch, should England manage to clear the first man more than once a game. In the lone crumb of quality against Scotland, John Stone clattered an inch-perfect corner into the post, a moment where having an amusingly bulky cement mixer for a head would surely have made a difference to the scoreline.

The ability to goal it in from set plays took England to the semi-finals in Russia and banished a few Ghosts of Crossbars Past. Misses like that create ghosts of their own.

What About The Other Harry?

Nobody encapsulated that all-too-familiar feeling that the white shirts had turned to concrete more than Harry Kane. The chinny wizard may have won the Golden Boot in the latest World Cup and Premier League, but the concern remains his ego, mind and body may have been Mourinhoed into the floor.

Harry Kane struggles against Scotland at Euro 2020

After just 6 touches in the Scotland box, there isn’t much point in having him if he insists on playing the exact same position as Raheem Sterling and Mason Mount. The trio clogged up the left midfield like Souness, Keano and Wrighty jostling for position as ITV's angriest man.

Gareth's taken a leaf out of the Luis Enrique/Alvaro Morata book, wrapping a big arm around his skipper and flicking v's at anyone cracking wise. Given Morata's goal and subsequent late horror miss, the jury’s very much out on the effectiveness of this.

That said, the other options are hardly bulletproof - 'rest him' and give an equally out of sorts Marcus Rashford the opportunity to locate some semblance of form, go full Pep and bang Foden in as a false nine or go full Sven and pump crosses towards DCL's admittedly gorgeous head.

Despite the pitfalls, getting this call right feels pretty pivotal for Southgate’s hopes.

Time For The Lions To Show Their Teeth

"But, but strikers don't need to score!", "What Giroud at the 2018 World Cup…?" I hear you whine. The crucial difference here is the current Kane/Rashford offerings aren’t getting a sausage out of the giddy array of talent around them.

A single solitary goal in two games suggests as much.

It would take a special kind of alchemy to put it all together, but the world sure as hell isn’t ready for a Keeganesque cavalry charge featuring the mischievous sorcery of Grealy Boy, Sancho’s fireworks, Sterling at warp speed, Phil Foden’s exquisite ballet and some between the sticks to bundle the whole cabaret production over the line.

I can’t see it unless we’re desperately chasing a game, but if that happens let’s hope Gareth has the good sense to at least try to go down in a blaze of glory.

Bohemian Rhapsody

Tuesday’s sturdy opponents, however, have an uncanny ability to let absolutely nothing happen for 15 minutes while they stand around with their arms folded recharging their batteries.

Of the 30 shots against they’ve weathered in their two games, they’ve only conceded once.

I think that means they’re a... good team?

At 40th in the FIFA rankings, they’re definitely underrated, perhaps because maverick skillsters like Nedved and Rosicky have passed the torch on to more industrious midfielders like Tomas Soucek, Vlad Darida and Alex Kral.

Despite our craven lust for goals here, we’re unlikely to see them – the Pilsner fiends run a tight ship and have only lost by more than a single goal once in their last 17 games.

Irons In The Fire

West Ham duo Soucek and Vlad Coufal exemplify how the Czechs compensate for their lack of finesse with bloody-minded hard work.

Soucek and Christian Pulisic - Premier Leauge - West Ham v Chelsea

Soucek didn’t miss a single minute of the Hammers’ surprisingly undisastrous Premier League campaign, finishing top scorer with 10. For his country the versatile beanpole excels at every job he’s given, be it scoring a hat-trick against Estonia in qualification, or babysitting John McGinn out of the game against Scotland.

Who’s Feeling Schick?

For all their expertise in the stodgemongering department, Czech Republic have a genuine goal threat in the shape of the tournament’s top scorer, Patrik Schick.

He’s already been involved in some legendary antics, first by mercilessly lobbing David Marshall into viral stardom against Scotland, then by exploding his own nose into Dejan Lovren’s elbow to win and slam home a penalty against Croatia.

The Bayer Leverkusen lad clearly has the brass nuts to make people look very silly indeed. Please, Pickford, be warned.

Anything Could Happen

This fixture is about as predictable as Paul Gascoigne’s current whereabouts. The teams met fairly recently in the 2019 qualifiers, just before the world ended. England breezed past the Czechs at Wembley with Sterling bagging a hat-trick in a 5-0 demolition job.

But the Republic took sweet revenge in Prague, as England lost their heads and found their concrete shirts again, losing 2-1 as their hosts caused chaos from set-pieces.

On the plus side, England responded pretty well to that defeat by winning their next three games 17-0 on aggregate.

Should We Just Let Them Win It Then?

With both teams unbeaten, the winner of this one will qualify top with a route to the final that likely avoids Belgium, France and Italy, but will have to face the runners up from the group of death in the next round (France, Portugal or Germany).

At the time of writing, the permutations are too complicated to bore you with, but mind if England flunk it and either Scotland or Croatia thump each other in the other Group D game, a third-place finish is still plausible.

That would mean a round of 16 tie against a group winner, might be an idea to show up for this one, then…

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