Soccer-All-action Soucek holds key to Czech Euro hopes

May 27 (Reuters) - Tomas Soucek was overlooked early in his career but has blossomed into a force for West Ham United in the Premier League this season and become the irreplaceable midfield engine the Czech Republic need to navigate a tricky Group D at Euro 2020.

The journey taken by the dynamic Soucek would have been hard to believe six years ago when Slavia Prague had to convince second-tier Viktoria Zizkov to take the 19-year-old on loan.

Most coaches viewed the 1.92-metre midfielder as too slow to make a mark in Czech football let alone the international stage.

But growing with confidence at stops including Slovan Liberec in the Czech top flight, Soucek returned to Slavia where he emerged as a dangerous attacker and tenacious defender with a seemingly limitless ability to cover large areas of the pitch.

Former Slovan Liberec coach David Holoubek did not rate Soucek highly when he scouted him a decade ago but praised the midfielder’s ability to continually improve on the way to becoming the most expensive player in Czech league history when West Ham paid 21 million euros ($25.7 million) for him.

“He’s a very clever player and embraced his football education step by step,” Holoubek, the national Under-18 coach, told Reuters. “He is key for the Czech team because he is strong, good in defence, dangerous in attack and can both score and defend on set pieces.”

The Czechs, appearing in their seventh straight Euro finals, will have their work cut out to qualify from a group that includes tournament favourites England, home nation Scotland and 2018 World Cup runners-up Croatia.

Soucek, who has made 33 international appearances since making his debut in 2016, will need to shine for the Czechs to have any realistic chance of surviving the group stage.

While deployed as a defensive midfielder, the 26-year-old brings much more to the team with plenty of firepower in attack, notching 31 goals in his 126 games in the Czech top flight.

His knack for finding the net has continued at West Ham where he has scored nine times this season and for the national side for whom he scored a hat-trick in the 6-2 thumping of Estonia in a World Cup qualifier in March.

Soucek also helped the Czechs to a surprise 2-1 win over England in a Euro 2020 qualifier, providing another reminder for the one-time doubters that his value is no longer a surprise. ($1 = 0.8172 euros) (Repotting by Michael Kahn; additional reporting by Robert Muller; Editing by Ken Ferris and Ed Osmond)