Cech delighted to bounce back from terrible start to finish job off in style
Petr Cech was succinct in his analysis of the manner in which -- against all expectation -- the Czech Republic are heading to the quarter-finals of Euro 2012 as winners of Group A.
"It's not how you start a group that matters," he said, after his team had beaten Poland in Wroclaw to assure progression. "It is how you finish."
And the grizzled 'keeper, who, like all his team-mates, has taken a vow not to shave until knocked out of the tournament, has a point.
A week ago, in the same arena, the Czech Republic had opened their campaign by being humiliated by Russia. At times in that game, as skillful, confident Russia ran at them, their defence had looked like revolutionaries trying to face down tanks with flowers.
Seven days on, shorn of their playmaker Tomas Rosicky, who was hampered by an Achilles strain, they are in the quarter-finals. While the Russians are heading back to Moscow.
The Czechs did it, if not in style, then with fluency, organisation and, in Michal Kadlec's astonishingly athletic last-second clearance from Polish captain Jakub Blaszczykowski's goalbound shot, teeth-gritted determination.
The Poles, despite firm instructions from their coach Franciszek Smuda to attack with conviction, seemed to wilt instead. And Smuda announced shortly after the final whistle that he would not be seeking a new contract.
The critical mistake was made in the 72nd minute when Rafal Murawski's misplaced pass on the fringes of the Czech area was picked up by Daniel Kolar. The ball was moved forward at pace, before Petr Jiracek did what the Poles had failed to do and fired home.
It was a goal that, for the hosts, takes the fizz out of the tournament. For the 30,000 Poles in the stadium, and the 70,000 watching in a biblical downpour in the Wroclaw fan park, what promised to be the party of a lifetime was summarily cancelled.
Now all they can expect over the next fortnight is to watch other fans from all over Europe squabble over the spoils.
"What we said in the dressing room did not happen on the pitch," Smuda suggested. "Maybe they tried too hard."
Whatever the cause, it is the hirsute Czechs who now head to the Polish capital for Thursday's quarter-final, having given vivid demonstration that in football, as in politics, a week can prove a very long time indeed. (© Daily Telegraph, London)