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Jun 21, 2012

The Czechs's siege mentality

The scene of devastation was like something from a disaster movie. Bodies strewn around, bodily fluids of varying provenance spattering the pavements. The weapon of choice: the beer bottle. That was the picture around the sprawling fan zone constructed in the shadow of Warsaw's Stalinist-style Pałac Kultury i Nauki the morning after Poland had been knocked out of Euro 2012. Czech Republic: the biggest party poopers in Polish football history.

It wasn't only the Polish fans suffering a sporting as well as alcohol-related hangover. Russian supporters wandered around Warsaw's Old Town, a hefty throw of an empty beer can from the National Stadium, where their country had lost to Greece just hours earlier. Even that 1-0 loss would have been enough had, some 350 kilometres away, Petr Jiracek not scored 18 minutes from time to take Czech Republic through instead. “Yira-sek,” one weary Russian fan said, seemingly unwilling to pronounce the Czech matchwinner's name correctly as if the latter syllable would be too painful a reminder of which nation would be advancing at their expense.

The Russians will feel that their team should have been stepping out in Warsaw to play Cristiano Ronaldo et al on Thursday. The 4-1 defeat suffered by the Czechs at the hands of the Russians in their opening game was their worst ever start to a major tournament; the fact they picked themselves up to win Group A is testament to the spirit that saw them reach Poland and Ukraine in the first place.

"We've been under pressure all the time,” coach Michal Bilek said. “It may have been an advantage for us that Poland did not play in qualifying. It meant they hadn't experienced such pressure as often as we did.”

The Czechs certainly gave themselves the opportunity to handle must-win situations. An inauspicious 1-0 defeat at home to Lithuania with which they began qualifying ensured an uphill road to Euro 2012 and a shockingly poor 1-0 victory against Scotland followed, while Liechtenstein were only dispatched with modest 2-0 victories. With Spain alongside them in Group I, the Czechs were always playing for second place. The fact they got it could then be deemed a success, and in their play-off victory against Montenegro there were already encouraging signs of improvement.

Those were all but swept away by the defeat to Russia, though, and the doom and gloom in the Czech Republic reached its nadir when Bilek's name was roundly whistled by Czech fans when his face appeared on the big screen at the stadium in Wroclaw prior to the second group game with Greece.

Like many successful managers, Bilek has fed off the public and media criticism – largely justified given their laborious qualifying campaign, and a 3-0 defeat in a friendly in Norway only last August – to foster an 'us against them' feel within his squad. It even led to his players chanting his name terrace-style following their qualification for the quarter-finals. "We provide each other with mutual support and stick together," Bilek said, sounding as if he runs a self-help group for recovering footballers rather than one of Europe's top eight sides. "We've gone through because we work as a team. It was definitely a good feeling to hear the players singing my name. We've qualified and we're all pulling in the same direction."

Defender Michal Kadlec said: "Coach Bilek has had a rough time, so we wanted to show our support for him." Against Russia, Kadlec was disastrous at left-back – the position he played for his club, Bayer Leverkusen, all season – but far better against Greece and Poland when he reverted to centre-back, where he played in qualifying and finished as his team's top scorer with four goals. Indeed, but for a nerveless Kadlec penalty in Scotland – a spot-kick that never should have been awarded – and his spectacular goal-saving clearance in the dying seconds against Poland, the Czechs would not be in the Polish capital preparing for their meeting with Portugal.

Eerily, they will meet Paulo Bento's men almost 16 years to the day that a Czech side, which featured Kadlec's father, Miroslav, met the Portugal of Luis Figo, Fernando Couto and Rui Costa and promptly lobbed them out of the competition courtesy of Karel Poborský's sand-wedge on the 18th at Villa Park. Which begs the question: can Bilek's men do a Euro '96?

"They keep comparing us but I think it’s a foolish thing to do," Jiracek said of those drawing parallels between the current side and the zlatá generácia of Pavel Nedved, Vladimir Smicer, Poborsky et al. Perhaps those comparisons are not all that wide of the mark, however. Though Petr Cech and Tomas Rosicky are already household names, unlike the band of unknowns in the Czech squad who arrived in England for Euro '96, Bilek's squad does contain a number of quality players previously unknown to all but the finest of footballing connoisseurs.

Vaclav Pilar, the impish winger nicknamed 'The Czech Messi', has wreaked havoc and scored twice, as has Jiracek, whose hair as well as his play evoke memories of Nedved, to raise their profiles immensely in the space of three matches. Given their team struck just 12 times in the group stage in qualifying, their habit of getting crucial goals from midfield – both also scored in the play-off against Montenegro – has been vital.

The pair will play together at Wolfsburg next season, Jiracek having made the move last winter at the same time as Pilar signed a deal to switch to the club Volkswagen built this summer. Felix Magath, the wily Wolfsburg coach whose motto is undoubtedly Vorsprung durch Fußball Realpolitik, must be sporting a Cheshire cat-esque grin.

They look poised to be joined in the Bundesliga next year by right-back Theodor Gebre Selassie, born of an Ethiopian father and Czech mother; he is set to join Werder Bremen from Czech champions Slovan Liberec. Two of Jiracek and Pilar's former Viktoria Plzen team mates, Daniel Kolar and ex-Spurs man David Limbersky, have also performed solidly, the former in slotting in for Rosicky, the man Bilek calls "irreplaceable".

Add to that blend Cech, who will be hoping not to repeat the gaffe that made the Greece game more nervy than it needed to be, the experience of Jaroslav Plasil and Tomas Hubschman in front of the back four and Milan Baros playing the lone striker role in which his tireless industry worries teams more than his goalscoring threat, and the Czechs' 4-2-3-1 has a certain charm.

Gebre Selassie tweeted “He who is afraid should not go into the woods” when he learned he would be in direct confrontation with Ronaldo on Thursday. The Real Madrid star and his international cohorts should be aware the Czechs have no fear of embarking down a perilous path to get where they want to go.

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