The Boro had finally done it. After the heartbreak of Wembley twelve months before, Karanka’s walk out crisis and too many last-gasp comebacks to count, Boro had ended seven years in the wilderness.
They had clinched promotion in the most dramatic of fashion by seeing off third placed Brighton on the final day, drawing 1-1 at a packed out Riverside that was threatening to burst at the seams with unbridled joy.
After the pitch had cleared following the flood of red and white that engulfed the team in the moments after Dimi’s catch that clinched the result, the players and staff were able to collect the “trophy” for finishing in second place and more importantly that meant a place in the Premier League.
As he would do after every Riverside victory, George Friend’s thoughts turned to one place. He headed south to the Boys End. Arms and head down, ready to unleash the biggest and best of salutes, another set of feet thundered after him.
Those feet belonged to Tomas Kalas. The sweet Czech Prince who’d captured plenty of hearts during his two loan spells at the club from Chelsea, Tommy K flew in the air alongside Friend as the Riverside roared its approval.
That was the last we saw of Kalas in a Boro shirt and what a fitting way to go out for a man who was a prime example of why it’s never a good idea to catch feels for a loan player. Every summer, every transfer window, plenty of us hope that his lovely face will turn up again for one last death-defying failed backflip in front of the South stand.
This summer, Kalas will need to channel the dramatic displays of his Boro days for his team to secure success, this time on the international stage.
The Czech Republic have a strong pedigree at the Euros for a nation that made its debut at the tournament in 1996. They finished as surprise runners-up that year and reached the semi-finals of Euro 2004.
However, this Czech vintage can’t call upon players of the same swagger and panache of Pavel Nedvěd, Karel Poborský and Tomáš Rosický.
The Czechs also come into the tournament under a cloud after Ondřej Kúdela racially abused Ranger’s Glen Kamara in a Europa League tie which was followed by Slavia Prague’s troubling reaction to the incident.
The Czech squad features five Slavia players and Kúdela would have been included if he hadn’t been handed a 10 game ban by UEFA. This team will be under intense scrutiny from fans and the press and that’s without discussing how they do on the pitch.
Jaroslav Šilhavý’s team will need to rely on their incredibly aggressive pressing and high energy approach to football to battle through a group that contains England, Scotland and Croatia.
They’re familiar opponents for England and Scotland, having finished runners-up behind England in qualifying for this tournament including a 2-1 win at home to England and topping Group 2B ahead of Scotland in the latest “season” of the Nations League.
Sevilla’s Tomáš Vaclík and Werder Bremen’s Jiri Pavlenka will be battling to start in goal in their opening game against Scotland.
While Vaclík has struggled for game time in La Liga after being displaced by Yassine Bounou, he has been given the gloves in the most high-profile games in recent World Cup qualifiers against Belgium and Wales. Pavlenka was also on the end of a 4-0 thrashing from Italy in a pre-Euros friendly which will have only benefited Vaclík.
That defeat to Italy was yet another warning to Šilhavý on the fragility of his defence and the risks of being so aggressive in chasing down possession. Three days after their hard-fought win over England, they were 3-0 down after 40 minutes against Northern Ireland with Paddy McNair getting a brace before pulling back two late goals, while they lost home and away to Scotland in the Nations League.
Kalas will be partnered in defence by Ondřej Čelůstka who played every minute in qualifying. The duo are the best the Czechs have to offer, though Jakub Brabec might squeeze Kalas out of the team if they don’t start well, and they’ll be hoping qualification is already wrapped up when they face Harry Kane, Jack Grealish and the rest of the boys at Wembley.
Slavia captain Jan Boril and West Ham’s Vladimir Coufal will be at full-back and have the licence from Šilhavý to bomb on up the pitch. Coufal is coming off a banner campaign for West Ham and was considered by many as the most consistent right-back in the Premier League.
Coufal’s West Ham teammate Tomas Soucek, an FPL favourite, is the team’s most important player. The current Czech Player of the Year will be asked to replicate his Hammers form and cover every blade of grass. The midfielder is the embodiment of the Czech’s relentless style and also offers a significant goal threat, especially from set-pieces. He bagged a hat-trick in March against Estonia.
David Luiz tribute act Alex Kral will join up with Soucek in the middle of the park and could be in for a big move if he performs well. Soucek has already reportedly suggested him to David Moyes as a potential replacement for Declan Rice. The Spartak Moscow midfielder is bound to gain plenty of fans as he shithouses his way around the group stage.
Šilhavý likes to play 3 creative midfielders behind a lone striker but will be without captain Bořek Dočkal who has struggled since returning from Achilles tendon surgery. In his place are likely to be Lukas Provod whose goal knocked Leicester out of the Europa League, Hertha Berlin’s Vladimír Darida and Jakub Jankto.
Jankto, who often teams up with Gastón Ramírez (boo) at Sampdoria, is the main source of magic for the Czech Republic. His main job is to feed striker Patrik Schick and the pair combined for 8 of the countries 13 goals in qualifying. Their relationship blossomed in the Czechs Under-19 and Under-21 sides and is the best bet for victory.
Schick, who struggled in his two years at Roma, is back to his best after moving to Bayer Leverkusen and helping the German giants secure a place in next season’s Europa League.
If the Jankto-Schick alliance fails, the Czechs can call on their most promising talent since the days of Nedvěd in 18 year old Adam Hložek. The teenage sensation is being chased by Liverpool, Dortmund and West Ham (well he is Czech!) after scoring 15 goals in 19 games for Sparta Prague in the domestic league.
Hložek plays in a similar fashion to Roberto Firmino, without the veneers, and has thankfully recovered from a metatarsal injury to secure his place in the squad. What is it with international tournaments and metatarsals?
While the defence will be the main cause for concern especially when facing Croatia and England, there is immense pressure on the Czech Republic to get a result from their opening game against Scotland at Hampden Park.
Putting a dampener on the Scots first international tournament game since 1998 by beating them would almost certainly secure the Czechs a finish as one of the four best third placed teams. However, anything else would mean they’d have to beat one of Croatia and England, or even both.
They do benefit from facing England in their final game where they’ll hope that the Three Lions have already qualified and rotate their team. If that’s the case, the Czechs might enjoy some support from England fans if the possibility is there for Kalas and co. to knock “the old enemy” Scotland or World Cup heartbreakers Croatia out.
A good showing in the tournament might even convince Neil Warnock to make a move for Tomas Kalas. G’wan gaffer, bring my sweet Czech Prince home.
Monday June 14th 2pm: Scotland vs. Czech Republic (Hampden Park)
Friday June 18th 5pm: Croatia vs. Czech Republic (Hampden Park)
Tuesday June 22nd 8pm: England vs. Czech Republic (Wembley)
Goalkeepers: Tomáš Vaclík (Sevilla), Jiří Pavlenka (Werder Bremen), Aleš Mandous (Olomouc)
Defenders: Vladimír Coufal (West Ham), Pavel Kadeřábek (Hoffenheim), Ondřej Čelůstka (Sparta Praha), Tomáš Kalas (Bristol City), David Zima (Slavia Praha), Jan Bořil (Slavia Praha), Aleš Matějů (Brescia), Jakub Brabec (Viktoria Plzeň)
Midfielders: Lukáš Masopust (Slavia Praha), Vladimír Darida (Hertha Berlin), Tomáš Souček (West Ham), Antonín Barák (Verona), Alex Král (Spartak Moskva), Tomáš Holeš (Slavia Praha), Petr Ševčík (Slavia Praha), Jakub Jankto (Sampdoria), Adam Hložek (Sparta Praha), Jakub Pešek (Liberec), Michal Sadílek (Liberec)
Forwards: Patrik Schick (Leverkusen), Michael Krmenčík (PAOK), Matěj Vydra (Burnley), Tomáš Pekhart (Legia)
Photo Credits: Bristol Post, The Gazette/Gazette Live, Transfermarkt, Hammers News