Czechs content as underdogs

Portugal v Czech Republic Villa Park Tomorrow, 6.30
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The consensus that the Czech Republic owe their place in tomorrow's quarter-final against Portugal at Villa Park to the shortcomings of others, principally Italy, brings a wry smile but no argument from their coach, Dusan Uhrin.

One Italian sports paper has even suggested that the Czechs should wear shirts stamped with Arrigo Sacchi's name. Uhrin has become innured to such patronising attitudes, and seemed anxious to foster a similar feeling among the Portuguese.

"I would consider it a surprise if we reached the semi-finals," he said. There was rich praise for Portugal and their "dangerous forwards" and candid talk about his own team's problems, but Uhrin admitted that being perpetually underestimated was "definitely an advantage for us".

The atmosphere of his press conference was conspicuously relaxed. The players visited Blackpool's Golden Mile for the third time yesterday; Czech beer is freely available in their Preston hotel; and they have enjoyed conjugal reunions with wives and girlfriends (following Denmark's inspiring example of 1992). The impression created, perhaps deliberately, has been of a naive squad enjoying a busman's holiday.

The truth is that the Czechs had results in qualifying that any of the home countries would have killed for, taking four points off both the Netherlands and Norway. As the stronger part of the old Czechoslovakia, they have two World Cup finals and the 1976 European Championship to their name.

Curiously, they reached the last eight having conceded more goals (six) than anyone except Russia. "We're aware of the problems, and I have already spoken to the players about the need to improve our defence," Uhrin said. To that end, he is likely to recall the experienced sweeper Miroslav Kadlec after suspension.

"Portugal are very impressive going forward, though they also surprise me with their organisation at the back," Uhrin said. Meanwhile, his players were watching their opponents' game against Denmark on video. The coach had seen it three times and knew it "off by heart".

The scene looks set for the likes of Paulo Sousa, Rui Costa and Joao Pinto to confirm their arrival as world-class talent. But the Czechs, who have 2,000 supporters flying in for the game, delight in confounding expectations. "It is our wish," Uhrin said matter-of-factly, "to keep making surprises."

PORTUGAL (probable): Vitor Baia; Secretario, Fernando Couto, Helder, Dimas, Oceano, Rui Costa, Paulo Sousa, Joao Pinto, Sa Pinto, Figo.

CZECH REPUBLIC (probable): Kouba; Kadlec, Hornak, Suchoparek, Latal, Bejbl, Kubik, Berger, Nemec, Kuka, Poborsky.

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