These Czechs Very Balanced

Times Staff Writer

Age Hareide doesn’t mean to scare anyone, it’s just that, well, facts are facts.

Hareide is the coach of Norway’s national soccer team, which plays the United States this afternoon at the Home Depot Center in the second of 10 warm-up games for the Americans on their way to the World Cup.

The Norwegians would have been with them in Germany this summer but for two 1-0 playoff losses to the Czech Republic in Oslo and Prague last fall.

Since it is the Czechs, ranked No. 2 in the world behind Brazil, that the U.S. opens against June 12, anything Hareide has to say about them is worth hearing. Scary or not, it’s a primer for U.S. Coach Bruce Arena and his players.


There is, for instance, the Czech coach, 66-year-old Karel Bruckner.

“He’s clever,” Hareide said. “He’s been in the game a long time. He’s good at organizing the side -- defend when you must defend, attack when you can attack. He’s shrewd. I think he looks deep into the opposition and sees their weaknesses.”

Then there is the starting goalkeeper, Petr Cech, only 23 but earlier this month named the top keeper in the world by the Germany-based International Federation for Football History and Statistics (IFFHS).

Last season, the 6-foot-5 Cech helped Chelsea win the English Premier League title, earning 21 shutouts and setting an English record by not giving up a goal for 1,025 consecutive minutes.

“He’s got the height, you know,” Hareide said. “He’s got the speed off the mark. He’s got the strength in his legs to reach everywhere in the goal, up and down. He reads the game well. Comes out for crosses. He’s a complete goalkeeper. At the moment, he’s the best in the world.”

The Czechs’ no-name defense isn’t so no-name, either, Hareide insisted, mentioning Thomas Ujfalusi, who plays for Fiorentina, and David Rozehnal, who plays for Paris St. Germain.

“The most promising player is Rozehnal,” he said. “Quick. Very quick defender. Strong. Those two had excellent games against Norway.


“The fullbacks are good,” he added, referring to right back Marek Jankulovski, who plays for AC Milan, and left back Zdenek Grygera, who plays for Ajax Amsterdam.

“They’re good defenders. They stay at the back, you know. Very tight.”

It is in midfield, however, where the Czechs really shine, boasting such outstanding players as former European player of the year Pavel Nedved of Juventus, Vladimir Smicer of Bordeaux, Tomas Rosicky of Borussia Dortmund and even veteran Karel Poborsky.

Nedved, 33, came out of international retirement for the playoff series against Norway after leading the Czechs to the semifinals at Euro 2004 in Portugal, where they lost in overtime to eventual champion Greece.

“He was better before, but he’s still Nedved, and people think of that when they play against him,” Hareide said. “He can still lay the ball down and kick it into the top corner from 20 yards out. He’s a good footballer.

“There are so many good talents. The Czechs are at their very, very peak when they win the ball at the center of the midfield and use it from there. They’re dangerous. At Euro 2004, they were the best counterattack side in the tournament. So quick on the break it was unbelievable.”

Up front, the Czechs have two radically different strikers in Milan Baros, the top goal scorer at Euro 2004, and lanky Jan Koller, who is fighting to recover from an injury in time to make the World Cup.


Without Koller, Hareide said, the Czechs are weaker.

“A lot weaker,” he said. “They lose all the strength in the box, all the power in the air. He obviously ties up people and makes freedom for Baros and the other strikers. With Koller not being present, you don’t have to be so careful about winning the first ball. You can win it without Koller there. With Koller there, you have problems winning it.”

Goals by Smicer in Oslo and Rosicky in Prague undid Norway’s World Cup hopes, and Hareide said the U.S. will have to be aware of every Czech player for all 90 minutes when the teams meet in Gelsenkirchen, Germany.

“You’ve got to be compact, compact,” he said. “Defend well and take them on the break.”

Can the U.S. defeat, or at least tie, the No. 2 team in the world?

“As I said, it’s tight in international football,” Hareide said. “There’s nothing between the teams. They’re well organized. They’re good players. You sort of watch each other all the time. A little mistake can be fatal.”

Norway found that out Wednesday night when it was beaten, 2-1, by Mexico in San Francisco.

As of Friday afternoon, Arena had not yet contacted Hareide to check on the Czechs.

“He’s welcome to phone me, no problem,” Norway’s coach said. “I’ll give him all the information he needs.”