Through late April, SI.com will profile two World Cup teams a week. We continue with the Czech Republic. Click here for the full archive.
FIFA world ranking: No. 2.
How they qualified for Germany: Finished second to the Netherlands in UEFA Group 1 with a 9-0-3 record, then eliminated Norway in a home-and-away playoff.
Previous WorldCups: None; eight as Czechoslovakia (1934, '38, '54, '58, '62, '70, '82, '90). Runner-up in '34; quarterfinals in '38, '90.
Manager: Karel Bruckner, fifth year with team.
Pavel Nedved, Juventus' superstar midfielder, came out of international retirement to spearhead the Czechs' successful UEFA playoff defeat of Norway, and he's expected to don the national colors once again in Germany. If he's in top form, the Czechs will be extremely tough -- they played the most attractive soccer of any team during their Euro 2004 semifinal run. But keep in mind, Nedved is on the downhill slope of his memorable career (as are a few of his teammates).
The biggest question is whether forward Jan Koller, the Czechs' towering 6-foot-8 forward, will be fully recovered in time after being out eight months with torn ligaments in his left knee. Koller scored nine goals during qualifying and he now says he'll be ready after a late-season return for Borussia Dortmund.
At only 23, Chelsea goalkeeper Petr Cech is regarded as perhaps the world's finest netminder, while forward Milan Baros has been far more dangerous in international competition than he has been at the club level for Liverpool and Aston Villa. Tomas Rosicky is an up-and-down midfielder, but his "up" can be transcendent. Meanwhile, wily 34-year-old midfielder Karel Poborsky may have one final big-stage performance left in him ... or he may not. The Czechs' advancing age in key positions is certainly something to wonder about.
What to watch for
Bruckner's crew scored an impressive 35 goals in nine World Cup qualifying matches, but things got a bit dicey toward the end as the Czechs barely held off Romania for second place in their group (behind Holland). Big-game performance might be a concern: The Dutch swept them in qualifying, and Greece came out of nowhere to derail the Czech train in the Euro '04 semis (a tremendous missed opportunity). Nedved & Co. have the talent, athleticism and craftiness to win a tough Group E and make a deep World Cup run, but their No. 2 FIFA ranking seems about as overinflated as the U.S.' place at No. 4.
In many ways, the Czechs resemble Team USA's first World Cup opponent in 2002, Portugal. That group was coming off an invigorating European Championship semifinal run; they, too, had international stars in the latter stages of their careers and were also appearing in their country's first World Cup in 16 years. Can the U.S. surprise its debut foe again in '06? Stay tuned.
Group: E (Italy, Ghana, United States).
Key match in group stage: June 12 vs. United States. In one of the World Cup's two toughest groups, bagging three points from the opening game is huge -- so, too, is winning the group to avoid a likely second-round matchup against Brazil.