Scotland vs Czech Republic preview: All eyes on Robertson and Coufal
Group D: Scotland vs Czech Republic, kick-off 2pm (UK time, BBC1)
A whopping 23 years after their last appearance at a major tournament, Scotland begin their European Championship campaign against the Czech Republic today.
The last time Scotland qualified for the Euros back in 1996, the Czechs were the story of the tournament and would have won it had it not been for Germany.
More recently, Steve Clarke’s side won both UEFA Nations League clashes between the two last year.
With England and Croatia to come, this is an opportunity to get points on the board and move into last-16 contention.
Ahead of the tournament, Scotland lost just two of their last 13 fixtures in all competitions, with both defeats coming in the Nations League.
The highlight of that run was a 2-2 draw against the Netherlands in a pre-Euro 2020 friendly earlier this month. The performance and result against the Dutch gave Clarke’s men a welcome boost, particularly as they were without a number of senior players.
For Czech coach Jaroslav Silhavy, his side’s recent form on the road will be a concern, having lost four of their last five away clashes.
At home, a run of four without defeat and just one loss in five give cause for optimism. Yet defeats to Italy, Wales, Germany and Scotland on their travels indicate another trip to Hampden Park could prove testing.
Scotland have breathed new life into their attack in recent games with forwards Che Adams and Kevin Nisbet among the goals in each of their last three.
Adams, who only switched allegiance from England in March, struck for the first time in the 4-0 World Cup qualifying win over the Faroe Islands and followed that with the only goal in a 1-0 friendly win in Luxembourg.
Meanwhile, Nisbet, 24, was named in Clarke’s 26-man squad despite having just a single cap to his name prior to the tournament.
The Hibernian forward struck 14 times in 33 appearances for the Edinburgh side in 2020-21, which was his first as a top-flight regular after moving from Dunfermline last summer.
If Clarke continues with a two-man strike pairing, it will be a choice between Adams, Nisbet and QPR targetman Lyndon Dykes — who finished the season with seven goals and four assists in his last 10 appearances.
Czech hopes will be pinned on Bayer Leverkusen forward Patrik Schick.
Loaned to RB Leipzig for the 2019-20 campaign, Schick struck 10 times in just 15 starts, which went some way to convincing Bayer to fork out nearly £23million to sign him permanently in September 2020.
A further nine goals from 20 Bundesliga starts represents a decent return in his first season at the BayArena.
A non-penalty expected goals per 90 minutes ratio of 0.47 was sixth in the league and suggests Schick is a reliable finisher when presented with an opportunity.
The left-footer is a nimble, cultured forward with a good first touch and he will need to carry his impressive domestic form into this opener if the Czechs have any hope of escaping a tough group.
Flanks hold the key
The key to this game could well be on the flanks.
The Czechs build from the back, attacking through the wide areas using full-backs Vladimir Coufal and Jan Boril, as well as wingers Vladimir Daridad and Jakub Jankto.
Scotland, meanwhile, will likely start with Stephen O’Donnell and Andy Robertson as their wing-backs — but also expect Kieran Tierney to make raiding forward runs from left-sided centre-back.
With that in mind, the match-up between Premier League rivals Coufal and Robertson down the same side could be interesting, with both registering seven assists last season.
With 66 chances created in 2020-21, Robertson was third among all Premier League full-backs with Coufal (45) only just behind.
Do not expect a high-scoring affair at Hampden.
Eleven nations who failed to reach Euro 2020 scored more times in qualifying than the Czech Republic (13), while Scotland were only marginally sharper with 17 goals en route to the finals.
West Ham fans used to the goalscoring exploits of Tomas Soucek will be disappointed to learn the midfield powerhouse tends to play a deeper, screening role in front of the back four for his country.
Both sides will be desperate to avoid a damaging defeat and with third place potentially enough to reach the knockout phase, the stakes are high.
It might not be the most enticing fixture in Group D but this will have a big say in who progresses.