Czech Republic inflict England’s first qualifier defeat in a decade
Zdenek Ondrasek’s late goal denies England a chance to qualify for Euro 2020
Czech Republic’s Zdenek Ondrasek celebrates with team-mates after scoring their second goal in the Euro 2020 Group A qualifier against England at the Sinobo Arena in Prague. Photograph: Michal Cizek/AFP via Getty Images
Czech Republic 2 England 1
This was the night when England had wanted to secure their qualification to the Euro 2020 finals; to fire the excitement ahead of what stands to be a home tournament, with so many of the ties next summer to be held at Wembley. A win against a game if functional Czech Republic team would have done it but, after following an error-strewn first-half performance with an improved second period, they switched off at the end to slip to a shock defeat.
The Czech Republic substitute Zdenek Ondrasek was the home team’s matchwinner, running on to Lukas Masopust’s pass to finish as the visiting defence, not for the first time, were reduced to bystanders and England were left to contemplate a first qualification defeat since the loss to Ukraine in October 2009.
A bizarre statistic had showed that England had not won in Prague since 1908 when Bohemia were the opponents and this was a setback for Gareth Southgate, given that everything his team does is viewed through the prism of how they might fare at the finals. Play like this and it will not end well.
Once again, the defensive looseness was a major worry and although chances came and went in the second half, England had flirted with trouble for much of the evening and they would be undone at the last. The hard truth was that only goalkeeper Jordan Pickford, who made three good saves, and Harry Kane, who scored from the penalty spot, emerged with any credit.
It had been possible to paint this as England’s toughest test of the group phase, even though the reverse fixture at Wembley finished in a comfortable 5-0 victory. The scoreline was flattering, Southgate had warned, and Czech Republic brought a sense of injustice to this occasion. They wanted to impose themselves, to show who they were, on a day when plenty of other things were going on in Prague – not least the state funeral of Karel Gott, the legendary singer.
England struck first following a slick move that culminated in Raheem Sterling tearing clear up the inside left channel. Southgate had given a full debut to Chelsea’s Mason Mount, a player he has liked since he saw him playing for the England Under-16s, and it was the midfielder, who started in an advanced central role in a 4-2-3-1 system, who got things going with a pass to Kane, whose first-time ball released Sterling.
Masopust had given chase but, when Sterling cut back inside the area, the Czech winger was too heavy with his attentions, catching the legs of his opponent. Kane has missed two penalties for England; nobody has ever missed three. But he got the job done with a clipped shot up the middle, having waited slightly for Tomas Vaclik to commit himself.
From a position of strength, England allowed Czech Republic to recover and there were times during the first half when Southgate’s defenders appeared to be chasing shadows. It was no exaggeration to say that the Czechs dominated for long spells. They pressed high and quickly, and England were left to grope for a foothold.
England’s defensive problems were writ large across the 5-3 win over Kosovo at St Mary’s last month and the inquest into the concession for 1-1 will not be pretty. There was a slip from Declan Rice in the centre, following Jakub Jankto’s corner, which allowed Ondrej Celustka to smuggle an effort towards goal and Jakub Brabec to touch home from close range. Michael Keane was the nearest England defender to Brabec and he was not close enough. The Czechs had won the corner after Pickford turned Celustka’s drive around the post.
It was a soft goal to concede and not the only time that England looked vulnerable when trying to defend corners. Patrik Schick almost got on to the end of one in the 17th minute but the angle was against his diving header.
England pieced together just one move of high quality in the first half, when most of the forward-thinking players were involved. Kane played the final pass to Mount and he was stopped by Celustka’s tackle.
With Mount pressed high, often up alongside Kane, there was plenty of responsibility on Jordan Henderson and Rice but they struggled, at times, to get England playing, with Henderson guilty of a series of loose passes. The Czechs frequently out-numbered England in midfield. The balance looked wrong for Southgate.
The manager responded at the start of the second half, reverting to a more familiar 4-3-3 formation, with Mount pulled back to a role on the left of midfield. The onus was on England to raise the tempo and they were more comfortable in their rejigged shape.
The chances came, with Kane the architect of a gilt-edged one for Sterling. Kane’s sharp and incisive passing was a plus point of the performance. Sterling was one-on-one with Vaclik but he could not get the better of him. Kane also played in Jadon Sancho with a weighted ball over the top, only for the winger to lack conviction, while Kane could be angry at himself when he failed to apply a decisive touch with the outside of his boot to a Sterling cross.
Pickford made second-half saves to deny Masopust and Alex Kral – the first an excellent tip over the crossbar – and it was England who pressed and looked the likelier scorers. Kane could not beat Vaclik following a pass from the substitute Ross Barkley, but Ondrasek would fashion the sting in the tail. – Guardian