West Ham United's Tomas Soucek (L) and Declan Rice will line up against each other in the Euros
After a season beyond all expectations, it is hardly the time for West Ham United to ruminate on what might have been.
David Moyes and his players know they could not reasonably have asked for more than a sixth-placed finish, which guaranteed qualification for European football. And yet, scratching at the back of their minds still, there is a small but unavoidable sense of resentment.
There are those within the club who believe that, if Declan Rice had not been absent for six crucial games in the run-in, they might have qualified for the Champions League. At the time of his knee injury, which he picked up playing for England in March, they were only two points off fourth place. When he returned, that gap had extended to six points.
The feeling at West Ham is that the absence of Rice was a double blow. Firstly, they were robbed of one of the most commanding defensive midfielders in the Premier League. Secondly, and crucially, his absence also meant they lost the considerable attacking prowess of Tomas Soucek, his midfielder partner.
Without Rice providing the defensive security in midfield, Soucek had less freedom to attack. The Czech Republic midfielder had to sit deeper, to be more careful. In Rice’s absence, the previously prolific Soucek did not score one goal from midfield. He found the net in Rice’s last game before his injury and did not strike again until the England player’s second game back.
In those seven weeks without Rice, Soucek was forced to become a different player. Less dynamic, less destructive, less effective in attack. It will therefore be a source of considerable intrigue, as well as potentially decisive in the game, to see how he and Rice fare against each other for their countries on Tuesday night.
Together, Soucek and Rice represent perhaps the most powerful midfield pairing in the Premier League. Their clash against each other is nothing if not a promoter’s dream: a heavyweight encounter between two great friends, on the grandest stage in the city where they live.
The two players are set to be in direct competition at Wembley. When Soucek bounds into the box, it will surely be Rice who is tasked with tracking him. And when Rice looks to move the ball forward for England, turning defence into attack, it will surely be Soucek who looks to slow him down. “That match will be a special moment,” said Soucek earlier this month.
Declan Rice has anchored England's midfield well at the Euros
Credit: GETTY IMAGES
It will not be their first meeting at international level: Rice and Soucek both played in the Czech Republic’s 2-1 victory over England in October 2019, a few months before they were brought together at club level. Vladimir Coufal, West Ham’s impressive right-back, also featured in that game.
“We have spoken about it [Tuesday’s match],” Soucek told FourFourTwo magazine. “Declan told us we can’t win at Wembley and we said, ‘well, remember your last game against us!’ It has been fun, it has been friendly. Only the 90 minutes on the pitch will be unfriendly, perhaps.”
Even if Rice did not know so much about Soucek’s threat, England as a collective would be well aware of the damage he can cause. His return of 10 goals last season was indicative of his goalscoring prowess, with his head and his feet, and at 6ft 4in tall there will be no stopping him in the air if the delivery is right.
Soucek played all but one minute of West Ham’s league campaign last season, and won more duels than any other player in the division. He also won the most aerial challenges across the league, underlining his dominance from crosses in either penalty box.
In the balance of his battle with Rice, the feeling is that Rice will be more preoccupied with stopping Soucek than the other way around. Rice is a key part of Gareth Southgate’s England midfield, but he is rarely a goal threat for his country. His role is to instead provide a platform for others, as he did for Kalvin Phillips in the victory over Croatia.
England’s gruelling draw against Scotland showed what happens when Southgate’s side do not win the contest in the heart of the pitch. As a team, they were stodgy and slow, with the Scottish midfield disrupting their passing and bustling throughout.
Soucek will look to use his running power (inherited from his marathon-loving mother) to do the same on Tuesday night, closing down the spaces and cutting off the passes. If he can do so, he will then set off towards goal. Rice knows the havoc that Soucek can create, and he will need to keep a close eye on his friend.
If Rice can win that particular tussle, it would go a long way to helping England win the game.