Late goals in Euro opener save Czech Rep blushes


As fans of football from around the world will know the European Championships in Portugal - Euro 2004 - have gotten underway and Tuesday evening saw the highly-favoured Czechs open against Latvia - a newcomer to the Euro championship. And though no one expected this game to be exceedingly difficult for the Czech side it almost proved a shocker...

Czech - Latvia, photo: CTKCzech - Latvia, photo: CTK Latvia got a sudden break in the dying seconds of the first half, with Blagonadezdins setting up a beautiful cross for striker Verpakovskis. Verpakovskis tapped the ball "oh so" easily into the Czech net - there was nothing the Czech netminder could do.

The sudden goal was all the more unfortunate as the Czechs had started strong right out of the box, with plenty of chances including one by midfielder Karel Poborsky that skimmed the top of the crossbar. Captain Pavel Nedved also had several shots, but all were carefully blocked. Latvia was shutting them down.

The game was then set for a dramatic second half, in which the Czechs once again came out strong, though fans must have had agonising fears it was the return of the curse that had seen almost all previous Czech Euro openers end in a loss. It took until the 73rd minute for them to turn the game around.

Milan Baros (on the left), photo: CTKMilan Baros (on the left), photo: CTK The answer came in a beautiful strike from Milan Baros that found the back of the net. From there on the pressure fell from the Czech team which began to play a smoother and more inventive passing game, slowly drawing the noose round Latvia, their penalty area a pressure cooker. When Latvia failed to clear in the 85th minute Heinz drove a gorgeous left-foot volley past Latvian minder Kolinko. Latvia was defeated.

This is how striker Milan Baros saw the game after the match:

"These days everyone has good defence and it has to be said the Latvian team was unpleasant in the breakaways. We're glad that we got all three points which was our aim. With the way things look one win might be enough to take us through the group stage."

But, will it be enough? We discussed the Czech team's form with well-known sports journalist Jan Palicka, who writes for the Czech daily Mlada Fronta Dnes. We caught him earlier on a phone line to Portugal and began by asking about Tuesday's game:

"It was a surprise by the Latvian team: I don't think players thought it was going to be so tough, so dramatic. It was a thriller for them. Captain Pavel Nedved said 'I'm so tired' after the match, because they didn't expect it would be so tough."

Czech - Latvia, photo: CTKCzech - Latvia, photo: CTK One couldn't help but have this sinking feeling when in the second half when the Czechs were still losing one to nothing. Do you think the players were nervous coming in, when they saw how well-organised the Latvian defence was?

"I think the players were nervous in the first half of the match: the passes were wrong. But, in the second half, in my opinion, they felt that they are stronger. Much stronger than the Latvian team, and they felt that they would beat them. But it was pressure."

The breakthrough came at the 73rd minute with that beautiful strike by Milan Baros. How do you see his play at this time?

"He has the speed certainly, he always finds a way to break through. Shooting from every position."

Netherlands - Germany, photo: CTKNetherlands - Germany, photo: CTK Of course very big matches still lie ahead in the group stage against the Netherlands and Germany. Those two teams tied yesterday and that draw could be very important from a Czech perspective. How do you think the Czechs will perform against Holland, which is the next game, and what do you think they'll take from last night's match?

"I think that first of all the Dutch team must be a little bit nervous or afraid of the Czech team because their last matches they lost or tied. And, the Czech team is "up". The team is up, the players are fit, they are without yellow cards, and, I think in my opinion they are capable of winning the next game and going through to the quarter-finals."