Can the Czechs stun Portugal?
After escaping the Group of Death at the European Championship, and it was a killer for the Dutch, Cristiano Ronaldo's Portugal probably deserved a slice of luck.
It sure got it.
Instead of having to face Russia or co-host Poland in Thursday's quarterfinal in Warsaw, Poland, Portugal meets the Czech Republic, which defied the odds to win Group A on a wild Saturday. Few saw the Czechs advancing, no less topping its group, after an opening day 4-1 loss to Russia.
"After the first game, many fans lost faith in us, which only doubles our joy now," Czech manager Michal Bilek said.
What's on the line?
Unlike the Czechs, Portugal won't be content simply to have gotten this far. So often Portugal has progressed to the knockout stages at major tournaments in recent years without winning them, including at Euro 2004 on home soil when the Greeks spoiled the party in the finale.
"We don't think it's going to be easy," Portugal's stern manager Paulo Bento said. "We have to keep up our work and the quality we have shown, then maybe we can reach the semifinals."
But is it the Czechs' time to land a spot in the final four? They reached the final in 1996 and semis in 2004, and here we are in Poland and Ukraine eight years later. If they are to upset Portugal, it'll likely be without playmaker Tomas Rosicky, who went home for treatment in a last-ditch effort to cure his Achilles injury.
"They are among the world's top 10 teams," said Czech keeper Petr Cech, who was part of the 2004 side. "It's a team full of personalities and outstanding players, and they play very well. The team has matured, and it's really strong.
"But we haven't lost [the game] yet. It's sport, and anything can happen."
Cech should know, since his defensive-minded Chelsea defied the odds to beat Barcelona and Bayern Munich in the Champions League.
Style and tactics
It's clear what's worked for Portugal this tournament: attacking. Trying to stifle the Germans amounted to nothing, and it was Portugal's willingness -- and necessity -- to go forward in a must-win game against Denmark that earned it three points in Lviv.
Portugal was at its best offensively against the Netherlands, though its job was made easier because the Dutch -- needing to win by two goals to have a chance of advancing -- had to throw caution to the wind. There was ample space for Ronaldo to run into.
The Czechs won't be as generous. Bilek's team relies on defense and being tactically aware to get results. After conceding four times against Russia, the Czech Republic allowed only one in the next two outings.
"We have learned from our mistakes, and during the second and third matches, we were more responsible in defense," Bilek said.
Players to watch
For Portugal: Cristiano Ronaldo, Helder Postiga, Nani
Ronaldo answered his critics by scoring twice against the Netherlands; only the woodwork prevented him from adding two more. While Ronaldo responded after two bad misses against Denmark, it was the opposite for striker Helder Postiga. Scoring against the Danes, the oft-criticized Postiga failed to put away two splendid opportunities versus the Oranje. Ronaldo grabbed all the headlines Sunday, but fellow winger Nani was quietly effective, hanging on to the ball, earning free kicks and delivering good crosses.
For Czech Republic: Petr Jiracek, Theodor Gebre Selassie, Petr Cech
With an aging and not 100 percent Milan Baros struggling, it's a good thing the midfield is chipping in. Petr Jiracek and his soon-to-be Wolfsburg teammate, Vaclav Pilar, have scored all four goals for the Czechs. Theodor Gebre Selassie, with energy in abundance, has been one of the best right backs in the tournament. He'll have a fascinating duel with Ronaldo. Even though he was faultless against Poland, Cech erred against Greece, committing another blunder at the Euros. Which Cech will show up between the posts Thursday?
What we can expect
The Czechs will sit back and not give Portugal room to maneuver. They may not park the bus, but they'll park the van. Trying to match Portugal isn't what the Czechs are about.
If the Czech Republic can keep it scoreless in the first 20 minutes, as did it against Poland -- the Poles couldn't shoot straight -- confidence would grow. The longer the game went against Poland, the better Bilek's men became.
Portugal had a psychological advantage in the pivotal clash against the Dutch, entering the game with a head-to-head record of 6-1-3. The Czechs will take heart from their recent outings against Portugal, dropping one of the last five and winning three.
In their last meeting, though, Portugal won 3-1 in the group stage at Euro 2008.
The improbable run will end for the Czechs. Portugal wins 2-1.