Wales were within two minutes of blowing a Bohemian raspberry in the face of the Czech Republic's supposed superiority last night. Then David Lafata scored the second disputed goal of his 15-minute debut and the Welsh Euro 2008 campaign was off to a losing start.
"Their first goal looked offside, but I was also angry with their second," the Wales coach, John Toshack, said. "The rules say free-kicks must be taken when the ball is still. It was a cruel defeat. We had worked so hard and defended well."
The real drama was crammed into the final 14 minutes. Lafata headed the Czechs in front from an offside position but Wales, for whom Craig Bellamy missed the two best chances, looked set for a deserved point after Martin Jiranek's 85th-minute own goal, and Lafata had the final word.
Before that, there had been much to validate the theory that this was a good time to play the Czechs. Since their anti-climactic showing in the World Cup, Pavel Nedved has retired from international duty (again) with Karel Poborsky. Milan Baros remains injured, although the Aston Villa striker was present and may play his first game this season in Slovakia on Wednesday.
Thousands of empty seats, on what was a balmy evening in this pleasant spa town, suggested that the Czech passion for their team needed to be reinvigorated. If the traffic was largely one-way, towards Paul Jones's goal, Wales grew in assurance as the first half progressed.
Things might have been different had Jan Koller's flick found the target from close range after 80 seconds, or if Jones had not parried athletically from Marek Kulic following a first-time pass by the new Czech captain, Tomas Rosicky.
Wales' counter-attacking strategy should have delivered a goal on the half-hour when Ryan Giggs sent Bellamy clear with "only" Petr Cech to beat. As the striker swerved inside, the keeper dived at his feet and pushed the ball away, only for Bellamy to seize on it again, but he fired into the side-netting.
It was a moment to savour for the watching Chelsea manager, Jose Mourinho, and one that had Toshack wincing. But he was surely more satisfied than Karel Bruckner when half-time arrived, even if the long-range shooting of Rosicky presented an intermittent threat.
The understanding between West Ham's former Cardiff pair, Danny Gabbidon and James Collins, was at the heart of Wales' composed play. Lewin Nyatanga, 18, settled encouragingly alongside them as confidence coursed through the side. Simon Davies, cutting in from the right, sent the ball flashing across the six-yard box after 49 minutes, but Joe Ledley did not get a touch.
Bellamy had a second chance after a defence-splitting pass by Giggs with 15 minutes left. After wrong-footing Lafata his shot struck the outside of Cech's right-hand upright. Within 60 seconds, Jones punched clear under pressure from Lafata, but when the ball was hooked back in by Libor Sionko, the newcomer was still where his original challenge had carried him and stooped to head home amid Welsh protests.
Wales' equaliser was tinged with good fortune, but it was no less than they merited. David Cotterill, who joined up late with the squad after transferring from Bristol City to Wigan on deadline night, cut the ball back for Bellamy, whereupon Jiranek obligingly intervened to turn the ball into his own net.
Lafata was not finished either. Marek Jankulovski's deep cross reached the far side of the area where Sionko returned the ball for Lafata to volley home as Wales again pointed to the goal's dubious origins.Reuse content