Michal Bilek’s first competitive game as Czech Republic coach was a jarring defeat by Lithuania last September; losing to the same opponents again tomorrow would prove terminal to his tenure, book-ending an unhappy campaign in which ambitions have been slowly strangled.
The soundtrack to the insipid defeat by Spain on Friday was dissent, the alarming proximity of failure manifest in calls for the coach to be dismissed. Yet the anaemic nature of Group I, arguably the weakest of the qualification sections, allows redemption to remain within reach.
That the scenario is akin to drunks fighting over the dregs from a can of Super Lager -- given that the correct combination of results will offer only passage to a play-off against an ominous opponent -- is irrelevant for the time being.
Realistically, a draw in Kaunas will ensure that dubious reward for the Czechs, given Scotland’s assumed anguish in Alicante, meaning Craig Levein’s side are reliant on Lithuania winning a competitive fixture for the first time since that encounter in Olomouc.
Having witnessed the lacklustre efforts of Raimond Zutautas’ side at Hampden last month, it is difficult to envisage such an outcome, but then few would have imagined that the team which held the Scots in the opening game of the campaign could immediately travel to the Czech Republic and triumph. From that result springs hope and clarity.
Zutautas had insisted that he would not be cowed by his hosts, yet still opted for caution in his approach and ceded possession and territory to the Czechs. Sound familiar?
Although Scotland’s defensive tactics were undone by a concession, having rarely looked like scoring, Lithuania gave themselves something to protect when Marius Stankevicius’ overlapping run and tempting delivery was headed emphatically past Petr Cech by Darvydas Sernas. An hour of defiance followed, during which goalkeeper Zydrunas Karcemarskas saved a penalty and Bilek’s side proved without the wit to breach the resistance.
Admittedly, drawing conclusions from a match more than a year ago fails to account for the natural evolution of the combatants but the broad themes remain true; Lithuania will be stuffy and resolute, they have individuals capable of moments of brutal efficiency and the Czechs are often a side bereft of guile and edge.
That they need only draw may negate the latter but there is a sense of calamity around Bilek’s defence that suggests his side will have to score in Kaunas. Despite conceding only twice against Spain, there was a haplessness and disorganisation to their shape; a problem exacerbated by the absence tomorrow evening of suspended midfield pivot Tomas Hubschman after his ugly lunge on Xabi Alonso.
It should not be forgotten either that this is a team against whom a notoriously profligate Scotland scored twice at Hampden, so Lithuanian intent may well be rewarded.
The noises from the Czech camp have been predictable, suggesting they have nothing to fear and that they always knew that their hopes would hinge on this match. Yet there remains an undertone of unease in their comments.
The supporters only broke from barracking Bilek in Prague’s Generali Arena on Friday to pour scorn on the contribution of Milan Baros, whose infuriating inconsistency is currently vexing the followers of Galatasaray, and the Czechs have grown fretful about their attacking options, with David Lafata of Jablonec and Nuremberg’s Tomas Pekhart -- who have just two international goals between them -- the only alternatives. “A player of Milan’s calibre did not deserve treatment like that,” the coach said. “I don’t mind them shouting at me -- I am used to it, I get it all the time -- but when the whole stadium is screaming at Milan to be taken off, it’s very bad.”
Disquiet is also being felt in Lithuania, though. After taking four points from their first two matches, just one from their following five has ratcheted up the pressure on Zutautas, due to meet his superiors immediately after the game to review his position.
A splendid 3-0 friendly win in August over an Armenia side which held Russia in Yerevan, overwhelmed Macedonia and annihilated Slovakia home and away has bought him some time but it turns out losing in Liechtenstein is just as unacceptable as in the Baltic states.
With experienced attacker Tomas Danilevicius absent and their qualification hopes at an end, the coach is minded to examine the peripheral members of his squad, with uncapped goalkeeper Marius Rapalis being considered for a debut.
Yet being up against a team sprinkled with inexperience does not necessarily make the task any easier; remember Scotland’s encounter with an apparently understrength Georgia in 2007?
That 2-0 defeat left Alex McLeish’s side winded and requiring victory over Italy to advance. A similar outcome for the Czechs tomorrow would take away Bilek’s breath too.