Petr Jiracek, rising star of Czech football

KAREL JANICEK Associated Press Published:

WROCLAW, Poland (AP) -- A year ago, he was Mr. Nobody. Today, nobody, not even Czech Republic coach Michal Bilek, can imagine the national team without him.

Petr Jiracek has played only eight international games but has made his presence felt.

The Czechs were struggling in their 2012 European Championship qualifying campaign when the 26-year-old Jiracek and other newcomers came in to rejuvenate a team weakened by the absence of retired stars and help it maintain a record of reaching every Euro since Czechoslovakia split in 1993.

His creativity helped increase the Czech attacking force in the crucial 2-2 draw at Scotland and a 4-1 victory at Lithuania, a result that secured a playoff spot for the team.

In the second leg of the playoffs at Montenegro on Nov. 15, his moment came and he proved what he is capable of.

After he collected the ball near the edge of the area, he burst past two Montenegrin defenders and scored with a low shot from 10 meters (yards) to qualify for the tournament in Poland and Ukraine.

"I was in the best form of my life," Jiracek said.

Now, he is with the team base in Wroclaw, eagerly awaiting his first major international tournament.

"Everything about football here is fantastic," Jiracek said. "And that's just a beginning.

"My goal is to go as far as we can. There's no clear favorite in our group, perhaps it's Russia. Any mistake can make a difference," he said. "I feel nervous but it will go soon."

The Czechs open the Euro 2012 campaign against Russia on Friday and also face 2004 champion Greece and Poland in Group A.

Last year, Jiracek was a key player in Czech champion Viktoria Plzen's first Champions League campaign. The team finished third behind European powerhouses Barcelona and AC Milan in the group stage and earned a spot in the Europa League.

His performances didn't go unnoticed.

Besides earning a regular spot in the national team, Bundesliga club Wolfsburg signed him in December to a contract until 2016.

After a brilliant start in Germany, he was slowed down by an injury, though.

"I don't regret anything," he said. "I'm getting better match by match. I'm glad I'm in Germany."

With Jiracek playing alongside former Plzen teammate Vaclav Pilar and a healthy captain in Tomas Rosicky, the Czech midfield has again become a force that can make a difference.