A goal with 90 seconds remaining, Vladimir Smicer's first in international football, last night ensured that there will be genuine dark horses in the quarter-finals. By the time the Czech Republic encounter their next hurdle - Portugal at Villa Park on Sunday - the stewards' inquiry will be in full swing in Italy.
Smicer, a 23-year-old substitute who joins Lens in France after the finals, earned his place in Czech folklore with a low shot from just inside the penalty area. The moment capped an extraordinary evening of fluctuating fortunes, in keeping with the traditions of Liverpool's great European nights, on which Russia fought back from 2-0 down to take the lead five minutes from the end.
At that point, Italy's place in the last eight looked secure. The Czechs, who had scored twice in the early stages and struck the woodwork on three occasions before their goalkeeper, Petr Kouba, had broken sweat, appeared to have lost not only the plot but the sub-plot to boot.
Talking of which, any match between Russia and an Eastern Bloc country their forces once occupied is never entirely free of political intrigue. This one came on the fifth anniversary of the day the last Soviet soldier left Prague, so it was not hard to imagine the emotional maelstrom through which the Czech nation went over the course of 90 minutes.
It began better than they could have dared to dream. Russia, depleted by injuries, suspensions and the decision of their coach, Oleg Romantsev, to send home a dissenter, had also dropped Dimitri Kharin and Andrei Kanchelskis. However, for all the upheaval, they initially looked no less forlorn, and the tournament's worst defence caved in twice in the opening 20 minutes.
First to exploit their slipshod marking was Jan Suchoparek, with a free header from Karel Poborsky's corner. Then it was the turn of Pavel Kuka. Easily shaking off the cumbersome Sergei Gorlukovich as Jiri Nemec's 50- yard pass fell to earth near the penalty spot, he headed the Czechs into what appeared an unassailable lead.
The margin of Russia's arrears might have been even more embarrassing. In the space of six minutes late in the first half, Michal Hornak's half- volley shook the underside of the bar after a corner by the impressive Patrik Berger; a Poborsky cross clipped the same woodwork on its way behind; and Stanislav Cherchesov made a stunning save to tip Berger's booming free-kick on to a post.
Romantsev promptly replaced both front-runners, and within nine minutes of the restart Russia were level. One of the substitutes, Alexander Mostovoi, headed them back into contention from Dimitri Khokhlov's centre. The right- back, Omar Tetradze, then helped himself after Vladislav Radimov fell when taking his pass under pressure from Nemec.
Russia were a team transformed. Despite enduring another escape when Poborsky's drive beat Cherchesov's dive only to come back off an upright, they went ahead for the first time when Vladimir Beschastnykh scored one of the competition's best goals to date from nearly 30 yards.
The Czech Republic could have been forgiven for believing that Italy's advance was pre-ordained. Smicer, pouncing on a pass by Lubos Kubik, had other ideas. Arrigo Sacchi will not be allowed to forget his name as the Italian inquisition gets underway.
Goals: Suchoparek (6) 0-1; Kuka (19) 0-2; Mostovoi (49) 1-2; Tetradze (54) 2-2; Beschastnykh (85) 2-3; Smicer (89) 3-3.
RUSSIA (4-4-2): Cherchesov (Tirol Innsbruck); Tetradze (Alania Vladikavkaz), Gorlukovich (Spartak Moscow), Nikiforov (Spartak Moscow), Yanovski (Alania Vladikavkaz); Karpin (Real Sociedad), Radimov (CSKA Moscow), Khoklov (CSKA Moscow), Tsymbalar (Spartak Moscow); Simutenkov (Regianna), Kolyvanov (Foggia). Substitutes: Mostovoi (Strasbourg) for Simutenkov, h-t; Beschastnykh (Werder Bremen) for Kolyvanov, h-t; Shalimov (Udinese) for Tsymbalar, 67.
CZECH REPUBLIC (1-2-5-2): Kouba (Sparta Prague); Kubik (Petra Drnovice); Hornak (Sparta Prague), Suchoparek (Slavia Prague); Latal (Schalke 04), Bejbl (Slavia Prague), Nedved (Sparta Prague), Berger (Borussia Dortmund), Nemec (Schalke 04); Kuka (Kaiserslautern), Poborsky (Slavia Prague). Substitutes: Smicer (Slavia Prague) for Kuka, 68; Nemecek (Servette) for Berger, 90.
Referee: A Frisk (Sweden).
Bookings: Russia: Nikiforov, Radimov, Tsymbalar. Czech Republic: Nedved, Nemec.
Man of the match: Berger.