|Scoreboard|||||Match Schedule|||||Standings|||||Teams|||||Player Leaders|
Czech Republic-Russia Preview
By CHRIS ALTRUDA
(AP) -- LONDON (SE) - One side knows it likely faces its last chance to fulfill the unmet expectations of a country's "Golden Generation" of players. The other features a pair of superstars expected to carry a youthful squad to hopefully win in the present and build for the future.
Russia and the Czech Republic open their Group A schedules on Friday in Wroclaw, Poland, trying to gain an early foothold in advancing to the quarterfinals.
It has been a curious four-year cycle for Russia - the inaugural champions in 1960 as the Soviet Union - since reaching the semifinals of the 2008 European Championships in Austria and Switzerland. The Sbornaya failed to qualify for the 2010 World Cup - losing in a two-legged playoff to Slovenia that ended Guus Hiddink's tenure - but rolled through Group B of qualifying this time around by conceding only four goals in 10 matches.
Hiddink's successor - fellow Dutchman Dick Advocaat - will leave Russia at tournament's end rather than see through qualifying for the 2014 World Cup, and his roster selections appear more of a nod to rekindling the magic of four years prior. Andrey Arshavin and Roman Pavlyuchenko return, anchoring a squad that has eight players at least 30 years old.
"The majority of players are still there. That can be an advantage," Advocaat said. "The frame of the team is still there. Four years older, but also four years more experience."
Arshavin and Pavlyuchenko parlayed their strong 2008 tournament showings into lucrative contracts to play at Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur, respectively, but both played domestically last season in Russia. Arshavin was loaned to Zenit St. Petersburg while Pavlyuchenko was with Lokomotiv Moscow.
"We are not a team with big stars like Italy, Holland, but we have a real team with some good individuals," Advocaat said. "All the players have experience. They play for top clubs in Russia. Russia's a very strong competition - a lot of people underestimate that."
Another player in Austria and Switzerland in 2008 is Roman Shirokov, who scored twice in a 3-0 victory over Italy last week to complete its pre-tournament tuneups. The Zenit midfielder, though, was relegated to the bench after Russia was overrun 4-1 by reigning champion Spain in its first group match.
While Advocaat does not lack for offensive options, goalkeeper is a concern as CSKA's Igor Akinfeev is trying to deal with a knee injury that has cut his practice time. If Akinfeev is unable to play, Zenit's Vyacheslav Malafeev likely will take his place.
Goalkeeper is a position where the Czech Republic has no worries as Chelsea standout Petr Cech is in top form following his backstopping of his English club to the Champions League title. However, the Narodak had to sweat out some anxious moments this week as midfielder Tomas Rosicky was cleared to play after suffering a calf injury during the team's run-up to the Euros. The Arsenal playmaker - the squad's second-most capped player with 85 - was able to practice without any issues Monday.
"Today, he showed how great a player he is," coach Michal Bilek said Monday. "Everyone could see that he was eager to play after the break and with him, our game will improve," he said. "Today, Tomas felt fine."
Rosicky's absence was clearly evident in the final tune-up game for the Czechs - a 2-1 loss to unheralded Hungary - and his missing the 2008 tournament through injury contributed to a group stage exit.
"Tomas is irreplaceable for us at the moment," said Petr Jiracek, an attacking midfielder who often benefits from Rosicky's passes. "He was in fantastic form (in the Premier League). That's great he's back. He's experienced and ready to take responsibility in difficult moments."
Cech, Rosicky and striker Milan Baros, who has 41 goals in 89 international matches, have helped Bilek's roster transition go smoothly as the team secured a spot by defeating Montenegro in a two-legged playoff after finishing runner-up to Spain in Group I. Eight players on the Czech squad are 26 or younger, leaving the star trio much of the heavy lifting if the Narodak are going to progress to the quarterfinals.
Baros is doubtful for Friday's opener after picking up a muscle strain in training.
Howard Webb of England will referee the match in Wroclaw. Webb dished out yellow cards to 13 different players and sent off Netherlands defender John Heitinga in the 2010 World Cup final won 1-0 by Spain at Soccer City in Johannesburg.
Russia continue group play against co-hosts Poland at Warsaw on June 12, while the Czech Republic will face Greece the same day in Wroclaw.
Updated June 6, 2012