Czech Republic brought their Euro 96 campaign to life with a 2-1 win over Italy at Anfield. Radek Bejbl scored the decisive goal during the first half, after Italy striker Enrico Chiesa had cancelled out Pavel Nedved’s opener in a wild game.
Coach Dusan Uhrin made some clever tactical changes to the Czech lineup, and they played a key part in this victory. Personnel wise, central midfielder Patrick Berger was drafted in for Martin Frydek after impressing during a second half substitute appearance in the opener.
Shape wise, the Czechs switched the 3-5-2 they used against Germany to a 4-5-1 shape that saw Karel Poborsky move out wide right, and Nedved move into a central midfield position after playing as a left wingback against Germany. Pavel Kuka of FC Kaiserslautern led the attack playing as a lone striker.
The schedule allowed the Czech Republic two extra days rest for this game, and that likely played on the mind of Arrigo Sacchi as he had five changes to his 4-4-2 lineup. After impressing in the first game, strike pair Pierluigi Casiraghi and Gianfranco Zola were benched in favor of Fabrizio Ravanelli and Enrico Chiesa. Midfield trio Angelo Di Livio, Alessandro Del Piero and Roberto Di Matteo were also benched and replaced with Diego Fuser, Roberto Donadoni and Dino Baggio respectively.
The shift in system paid dividends for Czech Republic, and the rigid 4-5-1 shape served its purpose on the defensive end by stifling passing lanes for the Italians, and frustrating the Azzuris attempts to play forward through the lines time and again.
The switch to a flat back four also paid dividends, with wide midfielders Poborsky and Jiri Nemec supporting the fullbacks on the defensive end. This allowed the Czechs to soak up the threat of Italy’s attacking wide defenders who had been so dangerous coming forward in the win against Russia.
It only took 5 minutes for Uhrin’s alterations to the Czech lineup to pay dividends on the attacking end also. Poborsky collected the ball in his wide right position, and swung over a cross for Nedved to latch onto after a run forward from his central midfield role to open the scoring. The assist was an impressive start to what would be an excellent performance from Poborsky, who put in a Man of the Match performance lined up against Italian captain Maldini.
The Czechs impressive start continued as they dominated the opening first 15 minutes of play, showing comfort in possession, and Luigi Apolloni picked up what would turn out to be an important yellow card in the 13th minute for a high footed challenge on center forward Kuka. Throughout the game, energetic midfielder Nedved joined the attack with runs from deep time and again that the Italians struggled to pick up.
Despite being on the back foot, Italy did possess some threat on the counter attack, and produced a devastating end to end move to score in the 18th minute. Czech left back Jan Suchoparak was dispossessed by Fuser in the Italian half, and the ball was played to a charging Chiesa, the pair combined for a neat 1-2 combination before Chiesa fired home to level the scores, Suchoparek was not as impressive as his display in the opening game v Germany, being booked just minutes after the giveaway that sparked this goal.
Any momentum the Italians gained from the equalizer was sapped in the 29th minute when Apolloni was dismissed, receiving a second yellow card for a reckless, ill advised challenge through the back of Kuka inside the Czech half. Spanish referee Antonio Lopez Nieto let the play run for advantage before going back to dismiss the defender.
With a man disadvantage, Italian coach Sacchi settled into a 4-3-2 formation, keeping his front pair and blocking the space in central midfielder. This system allowed the Czech fullbacks Suchoparek and Radoslav Latal significantly more time on the ball when advancing up the field, but did allow Italy to pose a threat throughout the game by keeping the strike pair intact.
As in the opening game against Germany, the movement into deep and wide areas of center forward Kuka would prove a vital cog in the Czech attack. Having already drawn both cards that led to the dismissal of Apolloni, Kuka drifted into a wide right area and crossed for Radek Bejbl to fire home what would be the decisive goal with an impressive one touch finish in the 39th minute.
Even with 10 men, Italy kept the game alive as a competition and consistently threatened the Czech backline by getting the ball forward to their front two, typically accompanied by at least one midfielder joining the attack.
The Italian attack was bolstered in the 58th minute when Casiraghi was subbed on for the largely unimpressive Ravanelli.
The Czechs received a lucky escape in the 67th minute, when a corner was deflected to the back post only for Maldini to fire over the bar. A minute later, Chiesa received the ball on the edge of the area from a throw in, but blasted just wide on the turn.
Vladimir Smicer replaced Berger in the Czech midfield and almost found himself on the scoresheet soon after. A Bejbl flick on found Smicer, who found himself clean in on goal after the Italian backline parted, his shot was saved low to the left by Czech goalkeeper Petr Kouba. Both Kouba and center back Miroslav Kadlec put in much more impressive performances here, after struggling in the opener against Germany.
In the 77th minute, the Czechs were provided with a chance to ice the game when a Poborsky free kick found Suchoparek at the back post, but the defender fired over from 5 yards out. A minute later, Sacchi made his last roll of the dice as the dangerous Chiesa was withdrawn and replaced by Zola for what would be an eventful and dramatic ending.
Suchoparek was very fortunate to not be dismissed in the 80th minute. Already on a yellow card, he clumsily went through the back of Casiraghi’s ankles in a challenge very similar to the one that saw Apolloni dismissed earlier.
As Italy pushed forward, the Czechs had two gilt edged chances to end the game when first Smicer and then Poborsky were denied in 1 on 1 situations by Italian goalkeeper Angelo Peruzzi.
In the 90th minute, a Peruzzi punt was flicked on by Casiraghi, and Zola was clattered into by Kadlec to give the Italians a free kick within shooting range, one that was wasted when Zola fired into the Czech wall. Kadlec would receive a yellow card that rules him out of the final Czech group match against Russia, but the play proved a crucial intervention in preserving this victory.
Italy pushed on and received one final chance in the 3rd minute of injury time. Zola chipped a wonderful pass into Casiraghi, and the striker cleverly chested the ball past Bejbl but fired wildly over the bar with only the onrushing Kouba to beat. The miss would leave the Italians bench with their head in their hands, as the clock ticked down on a vital Czech win.
POST GAME FALLOUT
Czech Republic breathed new life into their tournament campaign with three points here. After looking unimpressive in the opener, the formation and personnel changes by Uhrin paid off in a big way, and gave the Czechs control of their own destiny going into the final group game against Russia.
Captain Kadlec would be suspended after receiving yellow cards in both games so far, with Vaclav Nemecec a possible replacement. Supocharek was not as impressive at left back as he had previously been in a back three, and a tough matchup against Russian speedster Andrei Kanchelskis loomed.
After being in a strong position with the Russia win, Italy suddenly found themselves heading into a pressure game against a very strong German outfit needing a result and help from elsewhere.
It is possible that Sacchi blames the five changes on the scheduling of the tournament, but Italy had only themselves to blame for the position they ended up in. The tackle that saw Apolloni dismissed was a rash decision, and Casiraghi missed a golden chance to grasp a draw that would have seen Italy in a strong position going into the final round of games.
Sacchi would have a selection going into the final game with Casiraghi, Zola, Chiesa, Di Livio and Fuser all putting in strong claims for three positions on the field. The future of Italy’s tournament would depend on his choices.
5’ CZE Pavel Nedved (Karel Poborsky) 1-0
18’ ITA Enrico Chiesa (Diego Fuser) 1-1
35’ CZE Radek Bejbl (Pavel Kuka) 2-1
MAN OF THE MATCH
RM Karel Poborsky (Czech Republic) – The fast winger was a revelation after being deployed wide right, as opposed to his center forward role in the group stage opener. Poborsky swung over the cross to open the scoring, and gave Italian legend Maldini all he could handle for the duration of the game.
3: RM Karel Poborsky – Man of the Match.
2: CM Pavel Nedved – Another player who had his position switched for this game. A left wing back in the Germany defeat, Nedved was deployed in a central midfield role and shaped the game. His constant runs forward were a key part of the Czech attack and saw him open the scoring in the 5th minute.
1: CD Miroslav Kadlec – The captain put in an impressive display, winning the ball often and also playing some probing diagonal balls to release Poborsky down the right flank. His presence will be missed in the next game against a powerful German attack.
3: CF Enrico Chiesa – It will have surprised many to see Casiraghi benched after scoring two goals in the opener, but Chiesa was a more than able deputy. His work rate and pace in the channels was a threat all game, and he scored Italy’s lone goal from a lethal counter attack in the 18th minute.
2: RM Diego Fuser – Another replacement making his tournament debut, Fuser worked hard on both the attacking and defensive ends, setting up Chiesa’s goal with a sharp assist.
1: CM Demetrio Albertini – The skilled playmaker defended well with Italy a man down, and managed to provide consistent, quality balls to the forwards even after Apolloni’s red card. He will be a key figure as Italy heads into their must win final game v Germany.