x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Euro 2012: The underdogs enjoy their day

The Czech Republic have, so far, travelled under the radar at the European Championship, despite winning their Group. Now they face Portugal.

Petr Jiracek, right, and Tomas Sivok, second right, take part in a Czech Republic training session.
Petr Jiracek, right, and Tomas Sivok, second right, take part in a Czech Republic training session.

Even in their moment of triumph, they were overshadowed. That has been the way of things. As the Czech Republic topped Group A, attention was diverted by Greece's unlikely qualification for the quarter-finals.

Yet there are two distinctly improbable tales of outsiders stirring themselves from mediocrity, surprising everyone and succeeding.

Because when Euro 2012 began, the Czechs were the lowest ranked side apart from the co-hosts. They were arguably the least impressive team in qualifying, scoring a mere 12 goals despite being in a pool with Liechtenstein. But for a dubiously awarded 90th-minute penalty at Hampden Park, which showed Jan Rezek's flair for the dramatic, they might have finished third in their group.

That was last year. But, after 45 minutes of their campaign, the Czech Republic looked the weakest team in the tournament. Russia were not merely two goals ahead of them. Their superiority was almost embarrassing. The Czechs' competition appeared over before it had begun. Their game plan was in ruins. Their fans called for coach Michal Bilek to be dismissed.

Then the turnaround began. At first, it was easily ignored. They went on to lose 4-1 to Russia, but the half-time introduction of Tomas Hubschman brought a solidity to the midfield and shifted Petr Jiracek to the right.

A second significant switch came in their next match. Michal Kadlec, who had struggled at left-back against Russia, was restored to the centre of the defence. David Limbersky proved a more natural option on the left. Suddenly, the Czechs had a spine: Petr Cech in goal, Kadlec in the middle of defence, Hubschman exuding authority in the midfield.

They had a victory, too, but, again that was easily obscured. Greece's self-destructive tendencies were so pronounced in an opening six minutes when they conceded twice that it was simpler to say they lost the game than the Czech Republic won it.

So to Wroclaw. Their final game was Poland's party, the night the hosts would overcome their neighbours and surge into the quarter-finals. For the first half-hour, Poland dominated. They created chance after chance. And, though none went in, when Greece scored against Russia, they seemed to be heading home. Amid the focus on Poland, few, bar the Czechs themselves, seemed likely to notice.

But once again, something changed. As Poland tired, the patient Hubschman assumed control. Even in the absence of injured captain Tomas Rosicky, they had an alternative creator in Vaclav Pilar. The most influential player on the Wroclaw pitch is, in the truest tradition of this Czech team, underrated. Wolfsburg have agreed a deal to sign him from Viktoria Plzen. The price? A mere €1 million (Dh4.6m). It is a bargain born of the negligence of others, who failed to notice the winger's talent.

He was cutting in from the left wing, Jiracek doing likewise from the right. And, with 18 minutes remaining, Jiracek scored for a second successive game. In one swoop, the Czech Republic had gone from third to first where - partly because Kadlec cleared off his own line deep into injury time - they stayed. Russia, the team who had demolished them, departed.

A team playing under the threat of elimination for the best part of a year prospered. Tension seems to suit them. "We found ourselves under huge pressure all the time," Bilek said. "The players always fought and beat the crises, and in the hard games they showed huge moral strength."

So, now, for Portugal. Once again, the Czechs are underdogs. Then again, that seems to suit them. "You can beat everyone on a good day," Cech argued. His side have had had two already. A third would propel an underrated team into the last four and, strangely, into the pantheon of great Czech sides.