Photo: PA

WHEN your big rivals concede the title in November, you know you’ve been going well in the first half of the season. That’s what’s happened in the Czech Republic as Viktoria Plzeň have been in barmstorming form during the autumn and remain unbeaten in the league.

Plzeň are 14 points clear of reigning champions Slavia Prague and are showing no signs of letting up. What’s more, they’ve also transferred their domestic form to Europe and are in the last 32 of the Europa League after topping their group. They will face Partizan Belgrade when the competition resumes in 2018.

These are not particularly good times for Czech football, although Plzeň have the chance to compensate for the national team missing out on World Cup 2018.

They’ve won 15 of their 16 league games and would have had a 100% record but for a 0-0 draw at Teplice. Plzeň have scored 34 goals in 16 games and conceded just five. Little wonder that everyone’s thrown the towel in this year.

Attendances in the Czech Republic are up by 12% in 2017-18, with Slavia leading the way with an average of more than 12,000 and Sparta drawing 10,700 per game. Plzeň get just under 10,000 at their Doosan Arena. That’s not a bad crowd given the population of the city is less than 170,000. To most people, Plzeň is best known for its beer – it’s the home of Pilsner Urquell, after all – but it was where Škoda Works, the predecessor of Škoda Auto, was established. Plzeň was also the birthplace of goalkeeper Petr Cech.

Viktoria Plzeň have won the Czech First League four times, the first coming in 2010-11 and the most recent in 2015-16. They’re under new management this season in Pavel Vrba, the former Anzhi Makhachkala coach. Plzeň also brought in a number of new faces last summer but of the handful of returning loaned-out players and signings from other clubs, only Milan Havel, who joined from Prague’s Bohemians, has been a regular. Aleś Čermák, who cost €900,000 when he was signed from Sparta Prague, has only just got into the team.

Plzeň have benefitted from the goals of Michal Krmenčík, a 24 year-old striker who is top of the league goalscoring list with 11 to his name. There has been recent talk of the Czech international going to West Bromwich Albion. Another player who has been in good form this season is 27 year-old midfielder Jan Kopic.

Plzeň’s European campaign has the potential of going on for another round at least. They got past FCSB of Romania, Switzerland’s Lugano and Hapoel Be’er Sheva of Israel in the group stage and they had a 100% home record. Other Czech teams didn’t fare so well, Slavia went out in their group and Sparta and Mlade Boleslav didn’t get that far. Both the big Prague clubs made a lot of close-season signings, a trend that has been influenced by the heavy investment in Slavia by Chinese backers. Plzeň were less aggressive in the market, but pundits considered they had been smart with their spending.

Elsewhere, one of the surprise teams this season in the Czech Republic is Sigma Olomouc, who went into winter in third place. They were promoted in 2016-17 to the top flight along with Banik Ostrava, who are struggling near the foot of the table.

Although crowds are up this season, the number of goals being scored is declining with the average per game just 2.48, the lowest since 2009-10.

Czech First League 2017-18 – top six

    P W D L F A Pts g.d.
1 Viktoria Plzeň 16 15 1 0 34 5 46 +29
2 Slavia 16 9 5 2 27 7 32 +20
3 Sigma Olomouc 16 9 5 2 23 10 32 +13
4 Slovan Liberec 16 9 3 4 24 16 30 +8
5 Sparta 16 8 4 4 21 12 28 +9
6 Teplice 16 6 5 5 20 17 23 +3