You have a match against Leicester City next. What do you know about Leicester?
It will be a tough match, both tactically and physically, as Leicester has been one of the top Premier League teams for a long time. They have a very specific style of play. They have very dangerous counter-attacks, they have their No.10 Maddison, who is a very talented player. Defensively they play very responsibly. There are games where they don´t concede an early goal and there are few goals in those games. They’re a very mature team, a very hard-working team, with comprehensive long-serving players. They have players who’ve been in the team for a long time like Schmeichel, Vardy, Maddison. There’s also Evans and many others who have been there for a long time, so it will be a tough match against one of the best teams in Europe.
You said that you used to watch Leicester when you were young because of Gary Lineker?
Well, Gary Lineker was the player I pretended to be as a kid when playing football, as well as Zinedine Zidane, but it was mainly Gary Lineker who played for Leicester, and he was my idol. In those days, it wasn’t possible to watch these teams and matches on TV or on the Internet or YouTube, and I liked the team’s name, because here in the Czech Republic, we used to choose our favourite team based on their name or the club logo back then,because we didn’t have a chance to watch those matches. Because I liked Lineker, I followed him, and when I found out that Lineker is from Leicester, that’s how it began. It was only when I became an adult that I got to really know about the team and their colours etc. As a kid, I loved football and I used to have my favourite one or two teams from each country,and it was mostly because these teams had players from the World Cup or the European Championships, because there was no chance to see any other world football matches because of the communist regime, unfortunately. The exception was when a team came to play in the Czech Republic, or during the World Cup or the European Championships on TV. So, for that reason, we used to choose our favourite teams based on their names, and in England it was Liverpool and Leicester for me.
Is Jamie Vardy a similar icon of today´s Leicester team as Lineker was?
I think he definitely is. Lineker wasn’t there for as many seasons as Vardy has. Vardy has been there his entire professional career, even though he started later at the age of 25 or 26, and I think that the historic Premier League title that Leicester had was mainly down to him, although he did it together with other players and the coach of course.He’s a very productive and dangerous player. There are great players who play well all the time, and then there are players who just decide matches, and he is that kind of player. You don´t notice him on the field for 70 minutes, and then he pops up and decides the match in one moment,not only thanks to his shooting ability or his skill, but also by his instinct and charisma. He is very strong mentally and a leader.
What is it like to prepare the team to play against a player like this? What will you show and tell your players? They don´t get scared of him at all?
Well, you need to show them the typical game patterns of each player. For him, it’s his typical runs behind the back line and behind the last defenders from his right sideto the left side of the defence, where he not only has enormous speed, but also unbelievable timing and intuition, and where he is rarely in offside. He has great balance in his game. His finishing is amazing, too, as we can remember from a game against Arsenal, where he was able to shoot into the corner of the goal from an absolutely unbelievable position. So, his pattern of play is to choose a place in the penalty area and run in behind the defence.
You have always told that you will not move away from the tactics you have chosen for the match, you will not adjust them, and you will play positively. Does that apply to Leicester as well even though you know that they can counter-attack within 5 seconds?
They have many great players. Barnes, the midfielder, is in great form, and he is this kind of counter-attacking player, along with many other fast players. But I think it is mostly about whether Vardy plays or not, because with the way he plays, you cannot allow yourself to be open in defence, because he can punish you immediately.So, we will base our game on to that, because it is good to use your strengths, but when playing against such great teams you have to make adjustments to cover the strengths of the opponent as well.
Does the fact that your players watch the Premier League make it easier for you? Does it mean that you don’t have to explain so many things?
It is easier for sure in many ways because we watch those matches, and therefore, we don´t have to learn about all the players and all their names. When you play against a team you don’t know that well, it takes time to learn about them. In this case, we know all the players, and it’s great that we’ve had over two months to watch the matches in the Premier League, not only because it is great football to watch, but also so that we can study our opponent. In this respect, it’s easier for our players who normally watch the league anyway. It’s easier to explain things, and we don´t need that much material to introduce the players we are up against.
Tomáš Souček and Vladimír Coufal, your former players, are in Premier League now, and they’ve played against Leicester. Will you be contacting them, or have you already spoken to them about it?
Yes, we are in contact, and we’ve spoken about it already. They’ve played against Leicester once, and they have to play them one more time. And they know our style and our players, and we made some jokes. We told Souček that he will regret leaving us as we are going to win the Europa League this year. That was fun, but we also spoke seriously about the fact that in the most important part of the competition, the knock-out stage, we are facing one of the strongest teams. And that it is great for us to be able to play against them. We’ve discussed the Leicester players the way we see them and how they saw them when they played against them.
You had to get through the group stage. When you look back at the group stage, you didn’t start very well, but then everything changed and there was a turning point. What caused that change and how do you assess the group stage?
Well, I still think it was a fantastic group. I think that Leverkusen is one of the best teams in Europe. When we played against them, they were one of the few unbeaten teams left in Europe with the same number of points in the Bundesliga as Bayern München. I must say thatthey had great quality, which they showed in all the group matches as well as in the two matches against us. Then there’s Nice and Be´er Sheva, who eliminated Viktoria Plzeň, a team that finished second in the Czech League last year, so it was a very even group.And as you said, we started badly. In the first match everything was against us. Our performance was bad, and we didn’t take our goalscoring chances, but the next two matches helped us a lot, because we played against the best team in the group, in my opinion,Leverkusen, and we managed to beat them at home. This was a great change in two weeks, where in the first match we showed the worst we could do, and then we managed to defeat such a great team, so that was the huge change.And of course, the two matches against Nice were also important where we got 6 points against the second strongest team in the group and that was the key difference.
What was the role of Abdallah Sima in all that? Because some fans say it was him who brought energy to the team in the right moments.
Sure, he had some key and important moments in the two matches in terms of goals and the fact that he solved the problem we had on the right side of the field, since Vladimír Coufal left to join West Ham just before the start of the group stage. Then, we had big problems due to COVID-19, when we had a lot of players missing for the matches against Nice and Leverkusen.And his presence on the right side was good, because each player has his own place on the field, and we were missing people on the right-hand side. That is why we put him in at the very last moment. I saw how Be´er Sheva eliminated Plzeň thanks to the speed of their players.That is what we reacted to on the very last day possible, even though Sima was not here for long. Nevertheless, he scored a nice goal in the match against Nice and the first goal against Be´er Sheva, so he not only brought strength to that side of the field, but also goals.
How do you feel working with him now?
Great, I think. And it’s even better now as he improves regarding the language. It was tough at the beginning as he did not even speak English, but he is very smart not only as a footballer, but also with the language, and Ibrahim Traoré has helped him a lot,who spoke French with him and translated from Czech and English. Sima is a very hardworking player. For example, when he goes to the sauna and relaxes, he learns English and Czech using apps when he comes out, and then he goes back into the sauna again. So, he literally uses every minute to improve.And now working with him is better thanks to better communication in both Czech and English, as well as being in the team and seeing training sessions, evaluations and videos. He has developed much further than where he was at the beginning.
If we look back at the Quarter-final against Chelsea, can this be a starting point for the team or have things changed so much that this is not possible? Do you remember the match against Chelsea?
I often think about that match because it was one of the highlights of my career. After that, there was the match against Barcelona, but Chelsea was special. It was a great match with great players and a great coach. It was a fantastic game, but today we have a very different team.Only three players who took part in those games are in the starting XI now - Jan Bořil, Ondřej Kúdela, and Ondřej Kolář. There are more players in the wider squad, but some of them are gone. Chelsea were also quite different at the time, like Leicester today, but one important thing is that we have experience with the English environment of playing.This is quite specific including in terms of the field itself, and Chelsea had the best quality stadium I have ever seen in my life and the fastest pitch. It’s true that there is a difference between how English teams play at home and abroad. Their grass absolutely suits their fast style of playand I think that this is the reason why Premier League is so specific. When you first come on to the field, you almost feel bad about stopping the ball because the grass is so great. And I remember how we looked at how they moved the ball, how they look after the ball, and how they care about the grass perhaps even more than they care about their hair.And the way they look after the pitch is excellent, so with this experience you just know that it will be a fast game.
Slavia is more self-confident now, thanks to these experiences. You don´t just travel abroad to play some, but to actually go there and play the best you can and beat the opponent, right?
Absolutely, and I think everybody can see that there has been a transformation over the last season. And it was visible even at the beginning of our European season. It’s important for the players to prove to themselves that they are able to play against these kinds of teams and players, and later on they proved it in the matches we have spoken about.For that reason, it’s easier now because you don´t have to persuade them that they are able to play equally good football as the opponent, like we had to do two or three years ago. Our players have gained confidence, and they know that if prepare well, we are able to play as well as other teams.