Smicer stuns Holland in breathless finale

Holland 2 Czech Republic 3
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The Independent Online

The European Championship finally burst into life last night, as the Czech Republic came back from two goals down to beat Holland and book their place in the quarter-finals. Karel Bruckner's men are the first team to qualify for the knock-out stages and, on this evidence, can harbour genuine title ambitions.

The European Championship finally burst into life last night, as the Czech Republic came back from two goals down to beat Holland and book their place in the quarter-finals. Karel Bruckner's men are the first team to qualify for the knock-out stages and, on this evidence, can harbour genuine title ambitions.

Their play is spirited and disciplined, while they have, in Pavel Nedved, a world- class playmaker. Special credit should be given, too, to the manager, who threw caution to the wind when his team were 2-0 down, by switching from a traditional 4-4-2 formation to an attacking 3-5-2 mid-way through the first half.

The Czechs deserved their win, but spare a thought for Arjen Robben. Chelsea's £13.5m capture from PSV Eindhoven set up both Dutch goals and did not deserve to be on the losing side last night.

With Latvia holding Germany to a goal-less draw in the group's other game, the Czechs knew that victory here would guarantee them a place in the last eight. And they might have put a foot in the quarters inside 70 seconds, as Tomas Rosicky played a beautiful lobbed ball over the top of the Dutch defence and into the path of Jan Koller. Unfortunately for the Czechs, the big striker volleyed high into the stands from 12 yards. Moments later, Marek Jankulovski cut inside from the left and sent Jaap Stam to the ground with a clever body swerve, but then struck a tame right-foot shot straight at Edwin van der Sar.

Predictably, there was some concern among the Dutch fans, whose impressive orange wave totally dominated the Czechs' much more modest red sea. But their nerves were soon calmed by the new darling of Dutch football, Robben. With just four minutes on the clock, he floated in an exquisite free-kick towards the back-post which the totally unmarked centre-back, Wilfred Bouma, headed home with consummate ease. Judging by the way the 20-year-old performed throughout this open and engaging match, one suspects that the Chelsea fans, who will be treated to Robben's silky skills next season, must already be licking their lips.

The Dutch soon had complete control and were rewarded for their enterprising play with a second goal. Edgar Davids fed Robben down the left, and his instant cross then found Ruud van Nistelrooy inside the six-yard box. The Manchester United striker does not miss from there and duly stuck away the easiest of chances. It was not quite total football, but it had the dour Dutch manager, Dick Advocaat, smiling, which is no mean feat in itself.

However, the former Rangers coach was soon back to his moody ways, as the Czechs reduced the score against the run of play. With 23 minutes gone, the Dutch captain, Phillip Cocu, was robbed of possession by Milan Baros on the halfway line and then watched in horror as the Liverpool front man raced towards Van der Sar's goal, turned Stam inside out and then fed Koller. The Czech's giant No 9 made no mistake from four yards.

Holland might have restored their two-goal lead three minutes before the break when Robben teed up Davids on the edge of the area, but the midfielder saw his left-foot strike rebound off the post.

It was not long after the restart before Robben was up to his tricks again. Having collected a lateral pass from Andy van der Meyde some 30 yards out, he twisted and turned down the left wing before eventually delivering an inch-perfect cross into the danger zone. Van Nistelrooy rose highest to meet the ball, but his header was brilliantly saved by another Chelsea recruit, Czech keeper Petr Cech.

Sadly, that proved to be Robben's last contribution, as Advocaat took the strange decision to remove his best player when there was still half an hour to go. The change handed the initiative back to the battling Czechs and allowed Nedved, the current European Footballer of the Year award, finally to come alive.

On 63 minutes, the Juventus man went on a terrific run down the left before cutting the ball back to the unmarked substitute, Liverpool's Vladimir Smicer, whose left-foot strike fizzed wide of the far post. The breakthrough came eight minutes later when the increasingly influential Nedved found Koller in the box, who nodded down to Baros. The 22-year-old striker's spectacular first-time volley left Van der Sar with no chance.

The Czechs had their tails up and were further aided when the Dutch right-back, Johnny Heitinga, was sent off for a second bookable offence with 18 minutes left. Nedved was relishing the extra space and should have scored the winner in the 84th minute. His stinging 30-yarder beat Van der Sar, but not the crossbar. No matter. Two minutes from time, Karel Poborsky was first to the rebound from Marek Heinz's shot, and the former Manchester United player squared the ball to Smicer, who tapped in from two yards.

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