‘Zlinces­ter’: Czech league’s an­swer to Le­ices­ter City

Malta Independent - - SPORT -

Af­ter only nine matches, a pro­vin­cial soc­cer club from east­ern Czech Repub­lic is start­ing to draw com­par­isons with Pre­mier League cham­pion Le­ices­ter.

FC Fas­tav Zlin, a 900-1 shot to win the Czech league ti­tle and al­ready dubbed "Zlinces­ter," is in the early ti­tle hunt with the coun­try's tra­di­tional pow­ers.

"It's a nice com­par­i­son," Zlin coach Bo­hu­mil Panik said in a re­cent in­ter­view. "It pleases me. Le­ices­ter is, for a small club like us, an ex­am­ple to fol­low."

Le­ices­ter sur­prised just about ev­ery­body last sea­son, start­ing well in the Pre­mier League and hold­ing on to win the English ti­tle for the first time in its his­tory.

Zlin, a town of 75,000 where in 1894 To­mas Bata founded what was to be­come a global shoe em­pire, started as a soc­cer team in 1919 and made its de­but in Cze­choslo­vakia's first di­vi­sion in 1938.

The team has never won the ti­tle, and did well to even stay in the top league af­ter fin­ish­ing only three points above the rel­e­ga­tion zone last sea­son.

"We hit the bot­tom in the spring," Panik said, re­fer­ring to a win­less streak in early 2016. "The play­ers well re­mem­ber that and don't want to go through it again. The team has learned a les­son."

This sea­son, Zlin is five points ahead of Sparta Prague and trails lead­ers Mlada Bloeslav and Vik­to­ria Plzen by only one point.

With its bud­get es­ti­mated to be less than $2 mil­lion a year, a sta­dium that seats just over 6,000 spec­ta­tors and no big suc­cesses in the past, Zlin is a very un­likely can­di­date to chal­lenge the Czech heavy­weights.

Un­der the name Gottwal­dov, it only once played in ma­jor Euro­pean com­pe­ti­tion, and was elim­i­nated in the first round of the Cup Win­ners' Cup by PSV Eind­hoven in 1970.

Yet this sea­son, the Cob­blers beat de­fend­ing cham­pion Vik­to­ria Plzen 2-0, held Sparta Prague to a 1-1 draw and so far have six wins and three draws.

Sim­i­lar to Le­ices­ter, Zlin's un­her­alded play­ers rely on a wellor­ga­nized de­fense and fast counter-at­tacks, pun­ish­ing any de­fen­sive mis­takes. But the team has also proved it is ready to adapt, like when vis­it­ing Jablonec al­tered its tac­tics and fo­cused on de­fense and coun­ters on Satur­day. Zlin trailed 2-0, but in a dis­play of undy­ing fight­ing spirit, the team ral­lied for two goals in the fi­nal six min­utes to sal­vage a draw.

"Given the devel­op­ment of the game, it's a vic­tory for us that the team man­aged to come back," Panik said.

Panik is an ad­mirer of some great coaches, in­clud­ing Ital­ian mas­ter tac­ti­cian Gio­vanni Tra­p­at­toni and Karel Bruck­ner, known for his free-flow­ing at­tack­ing soc­cer as Czech na­tional team coach.

The 59-year-old Panik, who has ex­pe­ri­ence from coach­ing sev­eral Pol­ish clubs, in­clud­ing Lech Poz­nan, ap­plies tac­tics that suit the play­ers he has avail­able at Zlin.

For in­stance, at­tack­ing mid­fielder Vukadin Vukadi­novic, one of the fastest play­ers in the league, has be­come a lethal weapon un­der Panik by cre­at­ing chances from his runs down the right flank. Vukadi­novic's pre­vi­ous club, Slavia Prague, failed to find use for his speed.

It'll take a team ef­fort to win the ti­tle, but Zlin is on the right track so far — just like that team from Eng­land last year.

"Le­ices­ter is a story that re­minds me of a fairy­tale," Panik said. "I like fairy­tales."

Zlin coach Bo­hu­mil Panik

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