Milan Baros, who has lived in the shadow of Michael Owen since arriving at Liverpool and Wayne Rooney since coming to Portugal, again proved he is a finisher of rare poise and power as the Czech Republic brushed aside Denmark with a commanding second-half display last night to earn a semi-final against Greece in the same stadium on Thursday.
With the Czechs leading through Jan Koller's goal after an attritional first half, Baros struck two sublime goals in swift succession midway through the second period. The 22-year-old, once of Banik Ostrava, thus maintained his record of scoring in every match at Euro 2004 and became the tournament's leading scorer with five goals.
The Czechs, winners in 1976 and finalists in England eight years ago, were also particularly well served by Karel Poborsky, from the Euro '96 generation, and one of the newer talents, Tomas Rosicky, for once giving Pavel Nedved some competition for the man-of-the-match award.
The Czechs were strong pre-match favourites. By wrapping up Group D after two games, Karel Bruckner, their 64-year-old eminence grise, had been able to give his strongest side an eight-day break from the rigours of competitive play.
Denmark were never likely to be cowed by the Czechs, having finished above them in the qualifying for the 2002 World Cup. However, Morten Olsen was forced to go into the game without his injured target man, Ebbe Sand, which necessitated switching Jon Dahl Tomasson to a front-running position from the withdrawn role in which he scored freely in both the first round and in the Far East.
Not that the Czech Republic looked conspicuously fresher during a cagey opening. Both teams, no doubt mindful that two of the three previous quarter-finals went to extra-time, appeared content to ease their way into the game.
The 32C heat of the day had given way to a balmy evening, which was, in theory, conducive to a contest worthy of the occasion and setting. Yet there were thousands of empty seats, which may have contributed to a low-key opening.
For the many flag-draping England fans present, the absence of the goalmouth action they had expected from two of the tournament's most attacking sides meant the initial focus of attention was, unusually, the identity of the fourth official. For it was Urs Meier, the Swiss referee wrongly blamed by many for the failure of Sven Goran Eriksson's team.
Jan Koller was first to engage the crowd's interest, heading over from a 12th-minute cross by Poborsky, and when Tomas Galasek galloped up to fire narrowly wide, it seemed the Czechs were about to assume control.
Instead, the Danes responded with opportunities of their own. Tomasson, like Rosicky, ghosted around pleasantly but to no great effect against two dominant defences. But both Olsen's wingers, Jesper Gronkjaer and Martin Jorgensen, were taking advanced roles and had evidently identified the right of the Czech defence as a potential weak spot.
With 16 minutes gone, Jorgensen set up Thomas Helveg for a goalbound shot that Marek Jankulovski blocked. Christian Poulsen soon headed wide from Claus Jensen's free-kick, after which the opening 45 minutes settled back into a slow-burning stalemate, which even Nedved could do nothing to enliven.
The sight of Nedved crumpling to the turf three minutes after the interval, following a robust challenge by Thomas Gravesen, must have briefly worried Bruckner. The blonde midfielder rose gingerly to his feet, but was immediately darting to receive Rosicky's astutely angled pass and winning a corner off the flailing legs of his shadow, Poulsen.
From the kick, swung in by Poborsky, Koller climbed to convert what was effectively a free header for someone of his 6ft 7in stature. Denmark's redoubtable defence for once looked as if their boots had been bolted to the ground, and they were in further trouble as the newly galvanised Nedved caused panic by attacking another centre from Poborsky that dipped enticingly into the six-yard area.
Nedved's impact on proceedings took a negative turn when he churlishly flicked out at Gronkjaer, causing the Dane to fall. A heated exchange followed and the Czech was cautioned, but it was a minor aberration in a drastically improved second half, in which the Czech Republic were intent on living up to their reputation from the group stages as the team of the tournament.
Two goals in three minutes by Baros confirmed as much. In the 63rd minute, Poborsky played Koller's quick-running foil in through the inside-right channel. Thomas Sorensen was then beaten by Baros's exquisitely chipped shot.
Before Denmark could regroup, Nedved sent Baros haring through the centre. This time he outpaced Martin Laursen, the defender acquired by Aston Villa from Milan before the finals, and while still running at full tilt he thrashed a rising drive beyond Sorensen from just inside the area.
- More about:
- Czech Republic
- Eastern Asia (the Far East)
- Europa League
- Liverpool FC
- Premier League
- Stephen Carter
- Tomas Rosicky