WROCLAW, Poland – As the minutes ticked by in Saturday’s Group A encounter between the Czech Republic and Poland, things were looking a bit bleak for Michal Bilek’s side. Greece was winning its match against Russia, a result that, if it stood, would see the Czechs bounced from the tournament unless they could somehow conjure up a winner.
In such a moment, it’s tempting to think the Czech manager was pleading for urgency, more intensity. Instead, he asked for something entirely different.
“I told the players to be patient and to be attentive at the back,” Bilek said afterward. “There were situations that weren’t 100 percent, but … we could counterattack because [Poland] opened their defense.”
It turned out to be sage advice. The Poles – who also needed a victory to advance – started throwing more into attack, the game opened up and Petr Jiracek finished off a flowing move on the break by slotting his shot low past Poland keeper Przemyslaw Tyton. The goal gave the Czechs not only a 1-0 victory, but a spot in the quarterfinals of Euro 2012 as winners of the group.
It’s a berth that isn’t just unexpected, but borderline miraculous. This is the same Czech team that was obliterated by Russia 4-1 just eight days ago. And while the team rallied to defeat Greece 2-1, there was thought to be little hope of success after star playmaker Tomas Rosicky failed a late fitness test due to an Achilles tendon injury he sustained in that match. Yet success followed anyway, in the most dramatic of circumstances, as defender Michal Kadlec headed a shot off his own goal line in stoppage to preserve the result.
“Our objective was to achieve second place [in the group], and now we are in first place,” Kadlec said through an interpreter. “It’s crazy. It’s madness. Greece is going through, we are going through, Russia is going home even though they beat us 4-1 in the first match. If someone had told me this, I wouldn’t believe him. Now it’s reality and it’s beautiful.”
For that, much of the credit has to go to Bilek. Watching him on the bench and in interviews, there is almost a serenity about him, a feeling that no matter what happens, he’ll never be rattled and his belief in his team won’t waver. That proved to be the case before, during and after perhaps the biggest victory of his managerial career.
“I know that some reactions of fans were negative during the first two matches,” he said at the postmatch news conference with the help of an interpreter. “But I’m not thinking about this. I’ve been under this pressure for a long time, and I’m really happy for the team. Especially for the players, they performed, they played well and that’s more important to me than anything.”
That they did so was down to Bilek’s man management abilities as well as some tactical tweaks that occurred as far back as halftime of the Russia game. Holding midfielder Tomas Hubschman was inserted into the lineup, and Jiracek was moved to the wing. All of a sudden, a team that was leaking goals had more midfield balance, although Bilek insisted on spreading out the credit.
“Hubschman is a defensive midfielder, that is true, and he is there to keep the ball,” he said. “But it wasn’t just him. We have five midfielders, and all of them played [defense] more responsibly. We knew [Poland] is good on the right side. In every match, it was clear that the right side was amazing, and [tonight] we just closed it. There were no clear chances, no counterattacks that we let them do on the right wide, so our defense was really, really good.”
It was due in part to the ability of wingers Jiracek and Vaclav Pilar to pin Poland fullbacks Sebastian Boenisch and Lukasz Piszczek in their own half with some mazy runs. And when Poland went for broke, Jiracek was there to pounce.
Now the Czechs are moving on, and the beards they’ve been sporting since the start of the tournament can remain on their faces. Goalkeeper Petr Cech cracked “I don’t mind if I have it until July 2.”
That is, if the rest of his Czech teammates can survive the emotional roller coaster.
“After the first match, it was terrible; now it’s beautiful,” Kadlec said. “You have to look in the dressing room, you have to look on the pitch, the final whistle. It was unbelievable, and this is why we play football.”