"Third place is little reward, far too little," was the lament from Czech newspaper Blesk after the Czech Republic lost out to Greece in the semi-finals of UEFA EURO 2004. There were many observers who felt the Czechs were the outstanding side of that tournament and they will doubtless be gladdened now by the sight of Karel Bruckner's side installed as the leading European team in the latest FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking.

Victories over Finland and Andorra at the end of March have lifted the Czech Republic above France and Argentina into second place in the ranking list, behind Brazil - their highest position since 2000. Of course, this will mean nothing if Bruckner's men fail to achieve their goal of a first FIFA World Cup finals appearance since the former Czechoslovakia made the last eight at Italia 90, but their form since the autumn suggests a finals place should be within their reach.

Since losing their opening Group 1 match 2-0 to the Netherlands, the Czechs have recorded six straight wins, February's friendly victory in Slovenia included. This run of form has put them a point behind the Dutch at the top of their group, and two clear of Romania - the side who beat them in a play-off for the 2002 finals - with a game in hand.

It was against Romania in October that they embarked on their winning run, Jan Koller scoring the only goal. Bruckner has reflected since that this result - their first win in four matches - was vital: "A defeat would have put us in big trouble. You can see that the players were tense, you could tell by the way they were playing even, but they won and that was the most important thing." 

The 1-0 defeat of Romania was the first of five clean sheets in six matches for goalkeeper Petr Cech, whose presence between the posts transmits confidence through the team. The Chelsea No1 - voted his country's player of 2004 by the Czech press - has managed 16 shutouts in 30 appearances and, though only 22, already appears to have the qualities required to follow previous Czech goalkeeping greats like Frantisek Planicka - captain of the team who finished runners-up in the 1934 FIFA World Cup - and 1970s favourite Ivo Viktor.

And Cech is not the only rising star in this Czech side: in the most recent game against Andorra, there were five other graduates from the U-21 side who were crowned European champions in 2002. Among those to have stepped up to the seniors is Marseille midfielder Stepan Vachousek, chosen by Bruckner for the unenviable task of replacing Pavel Nedved - now retired from international football - on the left of midfield in several qualifiers to date.

Marek Heinz and Libor Sionko have also played there but fortunately, the Czechs have as arguably their biggest asset their togetherness as a unit. It is the collective that counts and this was underlined in last month's matches when they were able to manage without holding midfielder Tomas Galasek and also their leading scorer, Jan Koller.

Koller's replacement, the tall Bochum striker Vratislav Lokvenc, struck in both games as Finland were beaten 4-3 (thanks to Lokvenc's 87th-minute winner after the Czechs had lost a 3-1 lead) and Andorra 4-0. Milan Baros, the EURO 2004 top scorer, also struck in each match - taking his goals tally to 23 in 37 games - as did Tomas Rosicky. Rosicky's creativity is important to the Czechs and his goals marked a welcome return to form after a mixed season with Borussia Dortmund.

There will be many neutrals hoping the Czech Republic can maintain this form and reach Germany 2006, especially if it means a repeat of their exciting performances in Portugal last summer. But Bruckner knows there is a lot of hard work to do first. The Czechs must visit Romania and Finland in the autumn, as well as facing a home match against the Netherlands and the coach acknowledges that: "Which teams go to the World Cup won't be decided until the very end of the autumn qualifiers."