1996 European Championships
Quarter Final 4
Czech Republic 1 – 0 Portugal
Villa Park, Anfield
Sunday 23rd June 1996
By Stewart Flaherty (@stewartflaherty)
Underdogs Czech Republic rode an impressive defensive performance, and a virtuoso goal from Karel Poborsky to earn a spot in the EURO 96 semi finals with a 1-0 win over Portugal at Villa Park.
Czech coach Dusan Uhrin would go into this game without star midfielder Pavel Nedved, who was suspended for two yellow cards in the group stages, while defender Miroslav Kadlec returned from suspension for this game.
Vladimir Smicer earned a start here after his dramatic late equalizer against Russia that qualified the Czechs for the knockout stages, and Vaclav Nemecek was also drafted in from this game. Lubos Kubik and Patrik Berger made way and would be ready on the bench for this game.
Center forward Pavel Kuka was deployed as a lone striker for the Czechs in a 5-4-1 formation against a strong Portuguese opponent.
Portugal coach Antonio Oliveira lined his team up in their now familiar 4-4-2 diamond formation. Portugal were unchanged from the 3-0 win over Croatia that saw them progress into the quarter finals as Group D winners.
Joao Pinto and Ricardo Sa Pinto led the attack for Portugal, while star playmaking duo Luis FIgo and Rui Costa featured in the midfield diamond.
Czech Republic defender Jan Suchoparek tried to impose himself early but ended up receiving a yellow card for a hard foul inside the first minute. The early booking meant Suchoparek would have to play the rest of the match knowing that he would miss the semi final if his team made it that far.
Portugal won an attacking free kick in the 7th minute when Nemecek was adjudged to have fouled Figo. The free kick was worked short before a Figo cross was headed behind by Michal Hornak. A short corner was cut back to Paulo Sousa who had his shot deflected wide before a second corner was cleared by the Czechs.
Czech right back Radoslav Latal surged forward in the 9th minute before drawing a foul from Sousa. Poborsky sent a dangerous cross over from the free kick but Hornak’s header from 6 yards out was over the crossbar.
Czech Republic won another free kick in the wide right channel, this time it was Poborsky making the dribble before being fouled by Helder. Center back Helder received a yellow card for the challenge before Poborsky’s free kick was cleared by Fernando Couto.
Portugal midfielder Oceano found himself on the ball with acres of space in central midfield after the Czechs dropped into a deep block in the 15th minute. Oceano dribbled forward unchallenged before uncorking a shot that flew over the top of the crossbar.
Portugal continued to come forward and won a corner when Pinto was tackled by Hornak. The corner was cut back for Oceano to cross from deep, but Couto’s subsequent header was saved by Czech goalkeeper Petr Kouba.
The Czechs continued to defend strongly, but overstepped the mark in the 23rd minute when Smicer was booked for a hard sliding foul on right back Secretario.
The pressure from Portugal did not ease up and Sa Pinto passed to Pinto before running in behind to receive a return pass, only for his shot to be denied by a good reflex save from Kouba.
As the game passed the half hour mark, it settled into a pattern of mostly Portuguese possession that failed to penetrate the Czechs. The Czech Republic dropped into a deep block with a line of confrontation inside their own half, sacrificing a high press on the ball in order to keep plenty of bodies between the ball and goal, and also flood the middle third with numbers to suffocate the passing options of Portugal’s vaunted midfield diamond.
While this allowed Portugal time on the ball, it made the penetrative runs and passes in behind very difficult. It also meant that the Czechs had plenty of numbers on hand to defend any crosses that came into the box.
The Czechs were still managing to provide a threat on the counter attack, particularly on the right flank and won a 30th minute free kick on the edge of the penalty area when a surging Latal was fouled by Figo.
The crossed free kick was headed behind by Heder, before Poborsky’s corner failed to beat the first man and was headed behind by Oceano. A second Poborsky corner was headed clear by Oceano, before a second cross was also headed away by the Portuguese defense.
The right flank continued to be a good outlet for the Czechs and in the 34th minute Poborsky embarked on a 50 yard dribble to the byline before his cross was sliced clear by Secretario.
Latal was fouled out wide again a minute later, before Poborsky’s free kick was headed behind for a corner by Oceano in what was becoming a good spell of pressure for the Czech Republic. Poborsky’s corner was headed clear before an overhit cross sailed harmlessly out of play for a goal kick.
Portugal won a corner of their own when Sa Pinto was stifled by Kadlec in the right hand channel. The short corner was worked to Costa, and the tricky playmaker flashed some skill before winning a second corner. Figo took the corner and it was cleared to almost the halfway line by a powerful Kadlec header.
Soon after, Sa Pinto was chasing another ball into the right hand channel and won another corner under a challenge from Suchoparek. A short corner was worked by Figo before he was dispossessed when trying to split a pair of Czech defenders on the edge of the penalty area.
Costa played yet another ball in behind to Sa Pinto, and the striker was involved in a hard collision with Kouba while trying to latch on to the through ball. The clash saw Sa Pinto booked, meaning he would be suspended for the semi final if Portugal made it that far.
The Czechs received a yellow card of their own a minute later when Latal was booked for going in with a high foot on Costa. Latal would also now play the rest of the game knowing he would miss the semi final, even if his team won this game and progressed.
The game reached halftime scoreless, and the hard fought nature of the game was illustrated by the fact that 26 fouls were committed in the opening half, and 5 yellow cards given out by German referee Helmut Krug.
Portugal had the better of the run of play for long spells, registering 59% possession and a 4-1 advantage in shots before the interval. That said, the deep block deployed by Czech coach Uhrin was proving very tough to break down, and goalkeeper Kouba had only been forced to make two saves.
Portugal coach Oliveira tried to add a cutting edge to his team at the interval by replacing Sa Pinto with Domingos, who had scored the 3rd goal in the 3-0 win over Croatia in his previous appearance off the bench.
Portugal started the second half by winning a 48th minute corner when Figo was dispossessed by Radek Bejbl at the byline. A short corner routine came to a halt when Nenecek brushed Figo off the ball, and the Czechs cleared it up the field to target man Kuka. Playing as a lone striker, Kuka took possession and with no passing options, carried the ball into the Portugal half before drawing a foul from Oceano.
Kuka’s ability to hold the ball up with no support, relieving pressure and allowing his teammates time to join the attack was a key feature of the Czech Republic finding success going forward even when defending so deep.
Portugal won another corner minutes later when Figo was played in by Costa, before a Jiri Nemec tackle knocked the ball behind. Portugal took the corner short to Figo, who’s cross was headed over the bay by Pinto.
Czech right winger Poborsky had been pushed into a more central position at half time by Uhrin, and the move paid off when the Czechs took the lead in the 53rd minute. Poborsky received a pass from Nemec, and bundled through a crowd of Czech defenders before scooping a delightful chip over Vitor Baia from the edge of the penalty area.
The goal was one of the more memorable goals in the history of the European Championships, and pairing a strong defensive display with such a piece of virtuoso, individual brilliance encapsulated the essence of this underdog tournament run by the Czech team.
The tough tackling continued on both ends, and Czech midfielder Bejbl received a yellow card for a foul on Pinto in the 55th minute.
The influence of Cech target man Kuka continued, and the striker received the ball inside his own half with his back to goal, before beating Helder with a nice turn, driving forward and playing a pass wide to Latal. Right back Latal received the pass and took a touch before having his cross deflected behind by Couto. Poborsky’s corner was tipped away by Baia at the back post.
The confident Czechs would soon come again and Portugal right back Secretario was booked for bringing down Smicer as he charged up the left wing. Poborsky took the free kick, but his inswinging cross was hacked away at the third attempt by the Portuguese defense.
Portugal continued to probe for an equalizer, and Costa lifted a through ball in behind for Figo to chase, but the Czech back line continued to hold strong. The attack was ended and no foul was called when Figo was left on the ground by a combination of Kadlec and Hornak.
The combination of a deep defensive block system, combined with an alert and athletic Czech Republic defensive line made it very difficult for Portugal to penetrate, despite the quality of the passes being sent forward and in behind.
Chasing a goal, Portugal coach Oliveira subbed off the impressive Oceano, and replaced him with Antonio Folha in the 65th minute. Folha was a midfielder of a more attacking ilk, and had registered the assist for Portugal’s equalizer with a left wing cross during a 1-1 draw against Denmark that had opened group stage play.
Kuka continued to impress up front, but it would be bad news for him and the Czechs in the 69th minute when he was booked for a foul on Helder. The booking meant that the Czechs would play the semi final without their key target man if they made it through this encounter.
Kuka was back on the right side of referee Krug’s whistle minutes later when he drew a foul from Couto 30 yards out. Kadlec took the free kick but his low shot rolled just wide of the goalpost.
Potuguese substitute Folha made his first impact by surging down the left wing and winning a corner under a challenge from Latal. Folha took the corner himself and found Couto, only for the center backs header to loop harmlessly out for a goal kick.
Czech Republic would be put under significant pressure in the 82nd minute when a Latal red card meant they would have to defend their one goal lead in the games final stages while playing with only 10 men. Folha played a pass to left back Dimas, who’s charge forward was brought to a halt by a reckless foul from Latal, who was already on a yellow card.
Sensing an opportunity to grab an equalizer, Portugal coach Oliveira subbed on an extra striker when he replaced Figo with Jorge Cadete.
In response, Czech Republic coach Uhrin responded by making an 85th minute substitution to strengthen his team defensively. Smicer, scorer of the dramatic goal that made sure the Czechs had made it this far, was withdrawn and replaced by the more experienced and defensive oriented Kubik.
Portugal came forward when Folha stormed down the left wing, and with Latal now out of the picture, blew by Poborsky before swinging a dangerous cross into the area. Cadete got on the end of the cross, only for his glancing header from 8 yards out to bounce wide.
The intent of subbing on Folha was clearly visible with this chance, it was a left wing cross that created the Denmark equalizer, and this similar ball almost saw Cadete tie up this game.
Portugal pushed numbers forward during injury time with a raid down the right flank, only for Secretario’s cross to float harmlessly into the arms of Kouba.
As injury time seconds ticked off the clock, Uhrin replaced Nemecek with the fresh lags of young star Berger in central midfield.
There was time for one more Secretario cross, but Bejbl cleared before the final whistle blew on an intense battle that had included 50 fouls and 10 yellow cards from two teams fighting with all they had to progress into the tournament’s final four.
Czech coach Uhrin would be delighted to navigate his team into the semi finals, but would immediately have decisions and changes to make ahead of a tough impending fixture against France.
Right back Latal would be suspended, and his replacement would be hugely important, given that French left winger Youri Djorkaeff was one of the stars of the tournament so far. Nemecek had replaced Latal as a late substitute during a 2-1 group stage win over Italy, and would be among the contenders to replace him in the semi final.
In the imposing Suchoparek, Uhrin would be down another key member of his defensive line for the France game, and key striker Kuka would also be suspended.
The one boost for the Czechs ahead of the next game would be the return of star midfielder Nedved, who had scored the opening goal and been so impressive as a central midfielder in the win over Italy.
Portugal would be bitterly disappointed to exit the tournament here, but fans would be heartened by the performance of such a young team, who were starting to see their Youth World Cup success translate to the senior level. In Costa and Figo, Portugal had two of the stars of the tournament and the pair were aged only 24 and 23 years old respectively, with many tournaments ahead of them.
53’ CZE Karel Poborsky (Jiri Nemec) 1-0
MAN OF THE MATCH
#8 M Karel Poborsky (Czech Republic) – Terrorized the Portuguese throughout the game, from the right wing in the first half, and then from a more central position when he was shifted inside at the interval. Capped his display with an innovative, brilliant goal to lift his team into the semi finals.
3: M Karel Poborsky – Man of the Match.
2: CF Pavel Kuka – Forced to play without support on many occasions as a lone striker while the Czechs defended deep, Kuka held the ball long enough to take pressure off his team and allow his teammates time to get up the field on the counter attack.
1: CD Jan Suchoparek – Physical, tough tackling defender who featured in an impressive display by all Czech defenders on the day. Played strongly, despite knowing from the first minute onwards that he would not be a part of the semi final due to an early yellow card here.
3: CM Rui Costa – The playmaker failed to break open the Czechs, but was on the ball throughout and kept possession well as Portugal put pressure on the strong Czech defense.
2: CM Oceano – Strong display by the athletic ball winner in the Portugal engine room, only withdrawn during the second half for a more attacking option as Portugal chased the game.
1: CM Luis Figo – The skilled playmaker huffed and puffed to break down the Czech backline, making runs and attempting through balls and making penetrative runs as Portugal chased the equalizer.