Spain were heavy favourites to defeat the Czech Republic on Monday. For 87 minutes, however, it appeared that the two sides would split one point each and walk away. The Czech defence, marshalled by the classy Petr Cech, was on top of its game. Then finally, with just three minutes remaining, a fine Andres Iniesta cross was met by Gerard Pique's head, and the game ended just like everybody expected it would: With three points firmly in Spain's possession.
Just a look at the end-of-game statistics would provide an accurate enough picture of how the match panned out: Czech completed 275 passes to Spain's 676, attempted just four dribbles to Spain's 16, but claimed 34 clearances against nine from Spain. One team clearly sat at the back and defended resolutely, while the other had the upper hand throughout.
Ironically enough, it was the Czechs who started the game brightly, even winning an early free-kick, but Spain gained control after about 10 minutes or so. From there on, they bossed the match through precise passing.
The Czechs did get a couple of opportunities to score through set-pieces, but both efforts were misguided. Vladimir Darida tried his luck with a free-kick after Rosicky curiously walked away from a favourable position, but the Hertha Berlin playmaker could only find the ball. Another free-kick later in the first half could have also been a real opportunity, especially with their tall centre-backs, but it was curiously taken short and Spain were easily able to recover possession. Spain was mounting pressure on the Czechs, but the opportunity to relieve this pressure was impetuously wasted.
Set-pieces are an incredibly resourceful part of the game. The team in offence, especially the player in charge, has the privilege of taking his time and delivering a ball with as much precision as he wants. The attacker has no pressure within a 10-yard vicinity of the ball, he is playing a stationary ball, which is also easier to strike compared to a moving one. Furthermore, the fact that there are a large number of players who can be brought forward into pre-planned positions and make best use of their own particular skill-sets, provides an advantage that cannot be underestimated.
It's not unusual for a side to not create much through free-kicks, like the Czechs on Monday, but when chances dry up elsewhere, the team has to make the most of opportunities awarded to them. When a side cannot match the powerhouses, managers ask players to give more emphasis to set-pieces. When a team's strategy is to sit back and grind out a result and attack opponents on the counter, like Czech coach Pavel Vrba had evidently asked his team to do, set-pieces are even more valuable. In the second half, Ladislav Krejci's extremely well taken free-kick was met by Hubnik's head and was arguably the best chance Vrba's team created, and more importantly, this gave them the confidence that they can halt Spain's momentum. When this was followed by a corner hit towards the back post needing a last ditch clearance from Cesc Fabregas, del Bosque's team actually looked alarmed and weren't able to play their passing game for a brief period of time.
But, inevitably enough, Spain were once again able to regain momentum and looked determined to get the three points. With 15 minutes to go, they began to pile the pressure on the Czech defence, with as many as four Spanish players crowding the box, while five lurked right outside pouncing on any lose balls and clearances.
The Czech defence was on top of its game throughout the night; the fact that they conceded the most number of goals during the qualification stages (14) and were almost able to get a clean sheet against one of the most threatening football sides in the world speaks volumes about the effort put in to improve the defence. Not only was the organisation and the compactness superb, their offside traps were especially good. Morata and Nolito were constantly offside in the first half which had much to do with their opponent's offside trap working successfully. Goalkeeper Petr Cech showed his class as well and made some brilliant saves to deny the Spaniards for much of the game.
The performance of Vladimir Darida was another positive for the Czechs. The playmaker is capable of slotting in anywhere in the heart of the pitch — he plays as an attacking midfielder for his club, and got four goals and two assists in the number 10 role this season. For the Czech national team, due to the presence of Rosicky, Darida was employed in a midfield pivot, and even though he did a great job shielding the back four, he made three clearances and two interceptions, could he be of more benefit if allowed to play a more attacking role?
Rosicky himself had little impact on the game and his only involvement was to protest the referee's decisions when he was not awarded free-kicks. When the 35-year-old is not on top of his game, he has the knack of bringing the entire team's tempo down; the midfield moves sluggishly and transitions from defence to attack becomes handicapped. This was another similar instance.
Vrba's team played beautiful football to get to the finals of the tournament, and finished on top of their qualifying group. If the coach was being more ambitious, there didn't seem to be an effective strategy on the pitch to get the side three points. It's more likely that he was being pragmatic and the plan was to defend with discipline and try and get something on the counter, which almost worked.
Fans would hope the manner and style in which Czech Republic played was just isolated to this game , because if they are to progress to the knockout stages — and even third placed teams have a shot at that — they need to be more progressive in their approach.