Czech Republic 1-0 PolandWith flashes of lightning and crashes of thunder consuming Wroclaw’s Municipal stadium, the stage seemed befitting of the Polish warriors set to take the next step on their path to the Godlike status achieved by Polish teams of yesteryear. In the opening minutes of the game, like the unrelenting rain from the skies above, chances poured down upon the Czech goal. The Poles’ destiny, very much in their own hands, was within touching distance, but in a heart wrenching turn of events it was ripped from their clasp. The Czechs, overcoming early nerves, made Poland pay for their profligacy, knocking out the co-hosts with a 1-0 win. Here’s a look at some of the major talking points from the game. 1. Poles spurn early opportunities The Czech Republic were only back in contention to progress courtesy of their win against Greece, one of the notable features of that game was the nervous manner in which the Czechs closed it out. I noted then that were they to play similarly against stronger opposition they’d most likely be punished. I was proved wrong. Throughout the first quarter of the game the Czechs seemed lost, unable to find rhythm and devoid of ideas. The Poles were happy to concede possession in the highest area of the pitch but as soon as the Czechs moved the ball out of defence they were greeted by a blizzard of white, quickly dispossessed and on the back foot once more. In the opening 22 minutes of the game Poland were able to make 8 attempts on goal but with a solitary attempt finding the target, an element of doubt started to creep in, an element they couldn’t shake.
2. Home disadvantage?
As the half progressed, the Poles’ chances began to dry up and frustration set in. Whilst a home crowd can help lift spirits – Ukraine’s coming from behind to beat Sweden being a prime example, the weight of expectation can often be a burden for hosts. To compare the game to the Brazilians’ back in 1950 would seem foolish – pre-tournament figures suggested just 3% of Poles believed their team could go all the way, but the level of discontent was increasingly audible as the crowd’s whistles drowned out the thunder. Their expectations may have been lower but they certainly existed. Following the same pattern as their opening game against Greece, with pressure mounting Poland’s fluency disappeared, they were unable to recapture that fluency against Greece and coming back out for the second half they also failed to do so against the Czechs.
3. Jiracek impresses
Petr Jiracek’s bursting run and early goal was instrumental in the Czech Republic’s win over Greece, once again he was a key figure in turning the game around and delivering the killer blow. When the Czechs were struggling to hold onto the ball past the half way line, it was he who began dropping deeper, collecting the ball and using his ability running with it to help maintain possession in Poland’s half. His early exchanges with Gebre Selassie didn’t threaten the Polish goal but nor did they appear to intend to. Instead, they were an important factor in frustrating the Poles, disrupting their approach and allowing the Czechs to settle into the game. Jiracek’s goal, a well taken finish after a fantastic break by the once again authoritative Hubschman, turned out to be the only one of the game, with it the Czechs topped group A, without it they’d be out. There were several key figures in their progression but perhaps none more so than Jiracek.
4. Reality Czech
Whilst making it out of the group has seen the Czechs exceed most people’s expectations, this is a competitive tournament that they’re trying to win and there’s still little to suggest they will. They may have benefited from a favourable group draw, but being in the same half as the group of death means their quarter final opponents will likely be a strong outfit. Another issue is one that was extensively covered in the build-up to this game – the absence of Rosicky. After a shaky start, the deputising Kolar settled into the role, but he can’t offer the same quality as Rosicky and if the Czechs are to fall behind and face a stern defence, this issue may come to the fore. A final fear the Czech Republic will take into the knockout stages is their reaction to taking a lead – this game showed that their shaky second half against Greece wasn’t a one off; once they took the lead, they were immediately on the back foot and came close to conceding on a couple of occasions.
5. Smuda steps down
In the aftermath of the defeat, Polish manager Franciszek Smuda confirmed that he will be stepping down as manager as the end of the Euros coincides with the end of his contract. Speaking after the game, he said, ‘For these two and a half years, we have created a team we can count on in the future. They were not perfect, they were not as good as we imagined, but this is football.’ The co-hosts may have hoped for more but as Smuda reflected, the foundations are in place and the talent exists for the Poles to push on in the coming years.