As with much of Europe, the Czech First League is in the middle of it’s winter break and on recess until February. The top level of Czech Football, consisting of 16 teams competing in a 30 game season, is a highly competitive and entertaining league made up of a mix of larger and smaller scale clubs.
Clubs range from big sides such as the large Prague sides – Slavia and Sparta, playing in their 20,000 and 19,000 capacity stadiums respectively; down to the likes of Bohemians (also from Prague) playing in their more modest and slightly ramshackle 5,000 capacity ground (located a brisk 15 minute walk away from Slavia’s Eden Arena).
The league Champions qualify for the Champions League (at least the Qualifying round depending on if the Europa League Winners qualify in their own right). The league runners up also get a Champions League qualification place while the third and fourth placed teams and Czech Cup Winners take places in the Europa League competition. The bottom 2 sides face relegation down to the Czech National League below.
At this halfway stage of the 2017/18 season, Viktoria Plzen lead the way with 46 points, 15 wins (chalking up 14 in a row en route – a new Czech League record), 1 draw and 0 losses so far. This imperious form places Plzen 14 points ahead of both Slavia Prague and Sigma Olomouc who have identical records winning 9, drawing 5 and losing 2 games with Slavia ahead due to a superior goal difference. Sparta Prague and Slovan Liberec are a few points further back and make up the top 5. The top 5 are separated from the rest of the league by 5 points at present and represent the most probable candidates for European Qualification.
Beneath Sparta there is a tightly packed group of 5 competitive mid-table teams: Teplice, Bohemians, Jablonec, Zlin and Dukla Prague – all separated by a total of 4 points. Boleslav, Brno and Karvina are within touching distance of the above, but are also closer to the current bottom 3 of Slovacko, Banik and Jihlava.
The top 5, as above, are really already competing amongst themselves for the European spots. However places 6-16 are only split by 13 points, meaning that a decent winning or poor losing run could lead to teams climbing or plummeting respectively and drastically change the appearance of the table.
Of the mid table teams at present, there are some caveats and qualifications to make. Zlin for example have maintained a comfortable position in the league despite also competing in the Europa League group stages – finishing bottom of their group, taking 2 points from draws at “home” to Copenhagen and Sherriff while suffering defeats away from home against each and losing both legs versus Lokomotiv Moscow. Even then, this requires further qualification given that Zlin’s small ground meant that they played their “home” games in Olomouc. Considering Zlin qualified for the Europa League after winning last season’s Czech Cup – finishing 6th in the league – with this current season being only their 3rd in the top division after playing in the second tier between 2009 and 2015 and considering also their relatively small squad – their performances so far have been a real plus point. It will be interesting to see if they will burn out in the second half of the season after the new experience of the extra exertions of European Football in the first half – however it is not expected that they will slip too far down the league and end up in any danger of relegation.
At the top of the league, Plzen look unstoppable so far. Their only points being dropped in a draw versus Teplice after a Europa League victory against Steaua in the preceding midweek. Like Zlin above, the ability to juggle European Competition with league form – in Plzen’s case exemplary league form – is a superb achievement, particularly in this age where player fatigue and overloading on games is a major talking point. Even with a drop off in form or intensity, Plzen look to have the league sewn up already. Pavel Vrba has returned to Plzen following his previous spell between 2008-13 and then a secondment at the Czech National side and then Anzhi. Plzen have fallen straight back into the groove established in Vrba’s first spell where he won first the Cup and then the League for the first time in the club’s history. Plzen have won the league a total of 4 times since the first in 2011.
Part of the reason behind Plzen’s dominance has been the form of Michal Krmencik up front. The 24 year old has been at Plzen since 2011, but has spent most of his career out on loan and in his 5 loan spells was never a prolific goalscorer, hitting a handful of goals from season to season. However this season, Krmencik has amassed 11 goals which completely blows his previous goalscoring record out of the water. Behind Krmencik an attacking trident of Jan Kopic, the captain Daniel Kolar and Milan Petrzela provide flair and creativity behind. Kolar provides discipline and inventiveness in the “number 10” role as defined by Vrba while Kopic floats around and cuts in from a left sided starting position to provide for teammates. Plzen’s attacking form this season has been an illustration of Vrba’s attacking philosophy and when watching Plzen play, their intensity and fluidity has clearly set them apart from rivals in the league.
In the chasing pack, Slavia (the reigning league champions) have been inconsistent over the course of the season so far – albeit given Plzen’s record breaking form 2nd is not a total failure. Slavia lost 1-0 to Plzen in their meeting so far, but have also dropped points to some of the mid table strugglers. A 1-1 draw against Jablonec and 5-0 win versus Dukla illustrating this entirely.
Level on points with Slavia are Sigma Olomouc, something of a yo-yo club over the last few years, alternating between the top and National Leagues since 2013. Sigma have played an entertaining and fluid brand of football this season, which has led to success. They are well worthy of their lofty position and are expected to be very real challengers to Slavia for 2nd place. The sides drew 1-1 on matchday 6, but a defeat to Liberec on matchday 16 and victory versus Sparta just before that highlights a degree of inconsistency which is also a factor in the other top sides.
Sparta (5th place) are remarkably just as close to the bottom than they are to Plzen, highlighting the congested and competitive league below the top teams. This adds interest in how things will unfold as the season continues.
Down at the bottom, Jihlava will have to pick up form to avoid relegation – while they have won more games than others – this is tempered by 12 defeats in 16 games. Teams like Banik and Slovacko need to turn some of their draws into wins, but doing so will enable them to move away from danger and there is a feeling that this is possible. As above, there are a number of teams who could get dragged into a relegation dogfight as a result of a loss of form, the likes of Brno do need to be careful and try and pick up some further points and form over the next few games.
Matches between some of the mid table teams can be less than inspiring to watch. However, this is often the case with such mid table sides in leagues across Europe and does not detract from the overall spectacle or quality of the competition.
While the title may look to be sewn up already, the upcoming 2nd half of the season promises to offer more of the competitive and entertaining football that we have seen so far. There are battles for European spots and then more than half the league in realistic danger of slipping down the table. This is all to look forward to in the coming months.
For more on the benefits and merits of Czech Football, read this previous article:
Additional contribution from AW.