Czech Republic qualified for the last eight of Euro 96 in dramatic fashion, with events both in this game, and in the Germany v Italy fixture played at the same time in Manchester playing pivotal roles in Group C’s final standings.
The Czech’s came into this game without suspended defender and captain Miroslav Hadlek, but reinforced their backline by deploying a 5-4-1 formation that saw Jan Suchoparak, Lubos Kubik and Michal Hornak form a trio in the heart of a five man backline. This was a move that showed the tactical flexibility of Czech coach Dusan Uhrin, as it was the third different formation he had started with in as many games.
FK Drnovice defender Kubik would be making his first appearance of the tournament, but it was a sign of his respect with Uhrin and the squad that he would be drafted in and also made captain for this game.
The dangerous duo of Patrick Berger and Karel Poborsky would man the left and right wings respectively, while striker Pavel Kuka would lead the line as a lone front man again.
Russia would lineup in a 4-4-2 system with some noteworthy personnel changes. In defense, captain Victor Onopko and fellow defender Yuri Kovtun were suspended for this game due to cards received in the 3-0 Germany defeat a week earlier.
Striker Aleksandr Mostovoi was replaced by Igor Simutenkov, and right winger Andrei Kanchelskis replaced with Valeri Karpin, who played well while coming off the bench in the previous game against Germany. Omaro Tetradze had played in central midfield against Germany, and was moved into a right back role for this game.
As in their previous game against Italy, the Czechs started strongly, and Russian defender Yuri Nikoforov was booked within the opening five minutes for scything down Poborsky on the edge of the penalty area. The free kick was fired on goal by Kubik, and produced a diving save from Russian goalkeeper Stanislav Cherchesov.
The Czechs would take the lead from the resulting corner kick, when Poborsky swung the ball over and Suchoparak got separation from his defender to guide a header inside the post.
The lead would be doubled with a quick strike goal in the 19th minute. Czech left back Jiri Nemec looked up on the ball inside his own half before playing a searching long ball forward to Kuka, the striker produced a looping header over Cherchesov and into the net. As in the Czechs previous game against Italy, the movement and physical presence of Kuka meant he carried a threat even plowing a lone furrow up front.
At this point, the Czech’s looked to be cruising through to the knockout stages with Italy locked in a 0-0 draw with Germany. Italian striker Gianfranco Zola had seen a penalty saved in the opening stages of that game.
The dynamic movement of players within the 4-5-1 played a major role in the Czechs being so dominant in the early stages. When in possession Hornak and Kubik would step into the central midfield area to give an extra man, and with it being seemingly a different player each time, the Russians were unable to assign a set marker to negate this.
The midfield of the Czech’s also featured some dynamic movement that troubled the rigid 4-4-2 of the Russians during the first half. Poborasky and Berger consistently came inside to receive the ball, or floated into pockets with the ball, finding space and overloads on a consistent basis. It also appeared that central midfielder Pavel Nedved and Berger were given a green light by Uhrin to switch positions for spells during play.
The Czechs would hit the woodwork three times in the closing stages of a thoroughly dominant first half performance. In the 39th minute, a Berger corner found its way to Hornak, and the defenders powerful shot rattled the crossbar. In the 43rd minute, a Poborsky cross floated dangerously onto the bar, before a Berger free kick in the last minute of the half was tipped onto the post by an excellent fingertip save from Cherchesov.
Already eliminated from the tournament barring a miracle, down 2-0, and outshot 11-3 in the first half, you could have forgiven the Russians for losing hope and laying down in the second half. Instead, the motivation and adjustments of coach Oleg Romantsev saw the Russians play a leading role in probably the most dramatic and exciting half of the tournament.
Russian strike pair Simutenkov and Igor Kolyvanov were subbed off at the intermission, and replaced by Mostovoi and Vladimir Beschastnykh respectively, a change that would pay immediate dividends.
In the 49th minute Mostovoi would beat his man to get on the end of a Dmitri Khokhlov cross and glance a header past Czech goalkeeper Petr Kouba. Mostovoi was presented with another chance just three minutes later when he got onto the end of defense splitting pass from Sergei Gorlukovich, but his mishit shot was straight at Kouba.
The score was levelled in the 54th minute when right back Tetradze strode forward, exchanged passes and played Vladislav Radimov in behind the defense. Czech fullback Nemec put in a tackle, only for the ball to find its way back to Tetradze, who hit a deflected shot that looped over Kouba and slowly into the goal.
With score now tied at 2-2, Group C standings were on a knife edge, as the Czechs were level with Italy, who were now facing a Germany team reduced to 10 men by a red card. Another Russian goal, or an Italian goal would potentially see the Czechs eliminated in the group stage.
In the 62nd minute, Czech midfielder Nedved received a yellow card for a foul on Khokhlov, a booking that would see him suspended for the quarter finals if the Czechs progressed.
Both coaches shuffled their pack ahead of what would be the dramatic final stages of the game. In the 67th minute, Russian coach Romantsez withdrew Ilyar Tsymbalar for Igor Shalimov. Two minutes later, Uhrin responded by withdrawing the impressive Kuka and deploying Vladimir Smicer as a center forward.
With 10 minutes remaining Poborsky floated in off the wing to collect the ball and fired a vicious shot that he saw rebound off Cherchesov’s right hand post.
The game would take a dramatic turn when Russia took the lead in the 85th minute. Central defender Nikiforov received the ball in a seemingly harmless position around halfway. Under no Czech pressure, Nikiforov strode forward and found the feet of center forward Beschastnykh who had checked deep. Werder Bremen forward Beschastnykh turned to face goal and unleashed one of the goals of the tournament, arrowing a long range shot into the top corner and beyond Kouba.
A tactically interesting aspect of the goal, beyond the beauty of the shot was the contribution of center back Nikiforov. After finding the feet of Beschastnykh, defender Nikiforov ran forward with intent, and his run forced Czech defender Suchoparak to track him. The retreat of Suchopaprak from ball pressure, giving the time and space needed for the forward to shoot and subsequently score.
The Russian goal meant the Czechs would be eliminated if Italy help on to their 0-0 scoreline with 10 man Germany, but there was one final twist in store.
In the 87th minute, Russia had a chance to end the Czechs tournament when presented with a 3v2 breakaway opportunity. Mostovoi played in Karpin who squared the ball, only for Igor Yanovski to blast wide with the goal gaping.
With two minutes remaining, and the Czechs heading out of the tournament, Kubic intercepted a wayward Russian pass and looked upfield. The captain hit a ball into the path of a streaking Smicer, who calmly fired home into the corner to spark mass celebrations among the Czech Republic fans and bench.
When the final whistle blew, the Cechs celebrated a job well done after hearing the scoreless draw between Italy and Germany assured their progression to a quarter final against Croatia.
Czech Republic were just minutes away from elimination, but would go into the knockout rounds on a high courtesy of the late heroics of Smicer.
Having implemented three different formations in group stage play, it would remain to be seen what coach Uhrin would deploy in the quarter final against the dangerous Croatians. INS CRO INFO
Kubik, Suchoparak and Hornak all impressed in this game, so the return of captain Hadlek would cause a selection headache in defense for Uhrin.
The suspension of Nedved would be felt, but the forward runs of Smicer would make him a likely replacement, as he seemed most able to produce the kind of attacking runs from midfield that saw Nedved play such a key role in the Italy victory earlier in group play.
Russia would go home winless with this being their only point gained from their three games. While this was a huge disappointment to Romantsev and the squad, players such as Mostovoi, Kanchelskis and Onopko saw their stock rise after putting in some impressive performances on the big stage.
5’ CZE Jan Suchoparak (Karel Poborsky) 1-0
19’ CZE Pavel Kuka (Jiri Nemec) 2-0
49’ RUS Aleksandr Mostovoi (Dmitri Khokhlov) 2-1
54’ RUS Omari Tetradze (Vladislav Radimov) 2-2
85’ RUS Vladimir Beschastnykh (Yuri Nikiforov) 2-3
88’ CZE Vladimir Smicer (Lubos Kubik) 3-3
MAN OF THE MATCH
RM Karel Poborsky (Czech Republic) – The right winger put in one of the penetrative, high energy performances that were becoming a trademark, making an impact on both the offensive and defensive sides of the ball. His early corner to Suchoparak got the Czech up and rolling in a high scoring affair.
3: RM Karel Poborsky – Man of the Match.
2: CD Lubos Kubic – Drafted in for his tournament debut, Kubik broke a number of Russian attacks and stepped into midfield well to contribute in his possession. His late, searching ball over the top allowed Smicer to score the decisive goal that saw the Czechs make the last eight.
1: CF Pavel Kuka – The Czech system forces Kuka to play alone as a central forward, a demanding role that he performs well due to his movement and impressive physicality. A strong overall game was capped by his looping header that gave his side a 2-0 lead during the first half.
3: CF Aleksandr Mostovoi – Introduced as a half time substitute, Mostovoi sparked the Russian comeback with a goal and constant involvement on the attacking end throughout the second half.
2: RD Omari Tetradze – While not his best defensive game, Tetradze did keep the lively Berger off the scoresheet while playing well on the attacking end and scoring a goal himself.
1: Valeri Karpin – Captain for tis game in the absence of Onopko, Karpin played well throughout in a quality matchup against Czech left back Nemec.