WROCLAW, Poland – Eight days ago, the Czech Republic’s dreams of advancement at Euro 2012 looked to be in tatters. Remarkably, the Czechs came back from the dead to beat Poland 1-0 to win Group A and send the Euro 2012 co-host crashing out of the tournament.
Petr Jiracek scored the game-winner in the 72nd minute, finishing off a counterattacking move that was as swift as it was deadly. Poland, meanwhile, failed to make the most of another impressive start when it squandered several chances and in the process left a nation in despair.
That said, the Czechs' victory was impressive on multiple levels. Not only did the team record a memorable win, it controlled much of the match with a textbook display of possession soccer, all without injured playmaker Tomas Rosicky. The fact that the Czechs recovered from the 4-1 opening-game thrashing at the hands of Russia and won the group makes the performance even more remarkable.
Poland manager Franciszek Smuda named an unchanged side from the team that tied Russia 1-1 in Warsaw, meaning Przemyslaw Tyton was preferred to Wojciech Szczesny in goal. There was one alteration for the Czechs, and it was thought to be a killer. Midfield linchpin Rosicky was unable to shake off an Achilles injury he suffered against Greece and was replaced Daniel Kolar.
The match began under a steady rain, and with the Poles needing victory to advance, it wasn’t surprising when they created the first opportunity. A corner kick wasn’t dealt with by the Czech defense and fell to Dariusz Dudka, but his attempted bicycle kick hit the side netting.
The Czechs retaliated with Theodor Gebre Selassie making a strong run down the right in the second minute. His deflected cross found Vaclav Pilar at the penalty spot, but the Czech winger could only scuff his effort, which was cleared by Dudka.
Poland soon seized back the initiative, creating several clear looks at goal in the first 15 minutes, only to be let down by wayward finishing, a trait that haunted Poland the entire tournament. The best chance came in the 10th minute when Robert Lewandowski was put clean through following a Czech turnover, but he sliced his shot wide of goal.
When the Poles did start to find the range, Czech goalkeeper Peter Cech was there to deny them, producing a diving stop in the 22nd minute to thwart Sebastian Boenisch’s long-range blast.
But having survived the opening minutes of the match, the Czechs began to gain a foothold, enjoying some long spells of possession in the middle third. When the visitors did venture further forward, they began to find space on the wings, with Jiracek and Pilar both making their presence felt. As a consequence, it was the Czechs who were in the ascendancy as the half closed. Both Jaroslav Plasil and Pilar had good shooting opportunities, but both attempts went straight at Tyton.
If the Czechs felt good about their first-half effort, it was soon soured by the news that Greece had taken a 1-0 lead against Russia. If those scores held, Russia, Greece and the Czechs would all be on four points, and the Czechs would have been eliminated on the basis of goal difference in games involving the three tied teams.
That said, there was little change in either side’s approach to start the second half. The Czechs continued to enjoy most of the possession, while Poland struggled to get its midfield back on track. So with 11 minutes gone in the second half, Poland was the first to act, bringing on forward Kamil Grosicki for Eugen Polanski. The move saw Grosicki stationed on the left wing, with Ludovic Obraniak moving more central in a bid to give Lewandowski -- who was becoming an increasingly peripheral figure -- more help.
Yet it was the Czechs who continued to have the upper hand. Pilar and left back David Limbersky were continuing to find space down the left wing, helping to create a slew of set pieces, and it was from such an opportunity that the visitors nearly broke on top. Plasil’s corner from the left wing found Tomas Sivok wide open in the box, but the Czech defender’s header from point-blank range was superbly saved by Tyton, and the Poles’ dreams of advancement were still alive.
Not for long, however. Tomas Hubschman, whose steady midfield play more than anything has helped turn the Czech’s tournament around, won the ball with a clinical tackle in midfield. He then played the ball to Milan Baros, who passed to Jiracek. When Polish defender Marcin Wasilewski slipped to the ground, Jiracek had the opening he needed to slot the ball low past Tyton to give the Czechs the lead.
Adrian Mierzejewski and Pawel Brozek soon entered the match for Poland, which at this point faced the task of needing to score twice to stay in the tournament. Poland did what it could, and nearly got the first goal back in the 85th minute, but Wasilewski’s header sailed over the bar. More critically, given the Greek’s victory over Russia, Michal Kadlec delivered a vital clearance off the goal line to deny a Polish opportunity in stoppage time, and the Czechs were left to celebrate a deserved victory.
Man of the Match: Petr Jiracek
This award could just as easily have gone to Pilar as it was the incessant running of both wide players that helped turn the match around for the Czechs after a shaky start. Not only did they both provide an attacking edge, but they helped blunt the impact of Poland’s wide players, in particular Lukasz Piszczek and Jakub Blaszczykowski. But the edge goes to Jiracek, who somehow found the energy to always launch counterattacks, and he took his goal with aplomb after collecting Baros’ pass.
Final Verdict for Poland:
This match – and the entire tournament – will go down as a gargantuan missed opportunity for Poland. In particular, the co-hosts will rue their inability to convert chances early in matches, not just against the Czechs, but in all three games. Lewandowski will have nightmares about missing the target with a great opportunity in the 10th minute. But Poland’s failure to advance is about much more than its star striker missing one chance. The inability to get more out of the Greece match – when Poland had a one-goal lead and a man advantage at one point – looms large in the team’s early elimination. So, too, will the play of its midfield, which failed to sustain the early momentum that was established in every match.
Final Verdict for the Czechs:
There isn’t enough credit lying around to give to the Czechs, who despite the absence of star playmaker Rosicky delivered a thoroughly professional performance. Especially impressive was the team’s ability to keep possession, and outside of a shaky first 23 minutes, the Czechs were firmly in control. The match was a triumph for manager Michal Bilek, who managed to keep his side believing after the Russia match. His decision to insert Hubschman into midfield against Russia was an inspired move, and helped start the Czech’s recovery.