Powerful, determined and ruthlessly efficient, the Czech Republic swept aside the challenge of a tepid Netherlands side 2-0 to reach the Euro 2020 quarter-finals, where they will face Denmark in Baku for a place in the last four.
A 55th-minute red card for Matthijs de Ligt – the Juventus defender panicked into a deliberate handball on the floor under pressure from Patrik Schik – definitely turned this tie in the underdogs’ favour, sparking into life what had been something of a slow-burning game.
Though the Euro 96 runners-up had to wait 10 minutes for the opening goal courtesy of a Tomas Holes header, before Bayer Leverkusen forward Schik sealed the deal, theirs was a display full of grit and no little talent. Jaroslav Silhavy’s low block proved impossible to break down – the well-drilled unit have conceded just twice in four matches this tournament.
It was certainly more than enough to dispose of the Dutch, who struggle all game to create chances and lacked the character to turn around a game that began slipping away from them.
The atmosphere in Budapest’s sellout Ferenc Puskas stadium was spiky from the start, but had little to do with events on the pitch. Dutch captain Wijnaldum sported a rainbow captain’s armband with the legend ‘One Love’ adorned on it in response to the Hungarian government’s anti-LGTBQ+ law.
Meanwhile, the Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte refused an invite to the game, saying: “Hungary has no place in the EU anymore.” UEFA’s ham-fisted attempts at using the rainbow symbol across its social media – while banning anyone displaying the emblem because of its political nature, including in the the fanzone – is yet another sorry indictment of a governing body which has used up any credit it earned in facing down the European Super League. Football deserves better and its governing body must use its platform to stand up for equality, whether over race or sexuality. As it stands, the players are embarrassing their inertia.
Group stage top scorers, the Dutch had began on the front foot. From a short corner on the right, former Manchester United defender Daley Blind curled a fine cross to the back post, only for Mattijs de Ligt to head across goal when presented with an empty net in which to score.
Such was the strength of feeling in the Netherlands against coach Frank de Boer’s preference for a defence-first 3-4-3 system, fans flew a banner over a training session earlier in the tournament imploring a return to a 4-3-3. De Boer’s system has forced the Oranje to play more direct than previous Dutch editions, left centre-back Blind’s excellent long passing turning the Czech back four frequently in the opening 15 minutes to make use of the jet-heeled PSV wide forward Donyell Malen.
As the first half unfolded, however, the Dutch long-ball game came unstuck. Too often did goalkeeper Maarten Stekelenburg go long, the Ajax stopper’s pings gratefully devoured by Czech centre-backs Tomas Kalas and Ondrej Celutska. Asking split strikers Memphis Depay and Donyell Malen to compete aerially against the those two is like asking Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao to do battle with Tyson Fury and Anthony Joshua. Sure, they’ll give it a go, but their talents lie elsewhere. Though Depay showed a handful of neat touches, the Dutch were unable to pick their way through their opponent’s low block, with Gini Wijnaldum particularly quiet.
The Czech Republic were no less keen to go from front to back at the earliest opportunity. West Ham midfielder Tomas Soucek nearly got on the end of a fine cross from his club colleague Vladimir Coufal after 20 minutes, before Patrik Schik tested the handling of Maarten Stekelenburg in the Dutch goal moments later.
Indeed, it was the Czechs who had the game’s first big chance. With eight minutes to go before half-time, Frenkie de Jong was caught upfield and Lukas Masopust surged forward into the space. He fed the overlapping Antonin Barak, whose left-footed strike from eight yards was flicked over the bar by Matthijs de Ligt when well placed.
The second half exploded into life. Five minutes in, Depay’s impudent back flick released Malen, who left Kalas clutching thin air, but keeper Tomas Vaclik came off his line quickly to prevent the former Arsenal youth teamer from rounding to score.
Almost immediately, the game changed. The Czechs fed Schik – so effective in the group stage – with a defence-turning long ball, the Bayer Leverkusen forward standing up Matthijs de Ligt on the edge of the area. The 21-year-old Juventus defender panicked, stumbled and stuck out an arm to prevent the ball continuing into Schik’s path, who was otherwise clean through on goal. Initially giving a yellow card, the referee upgraded his decision to a red after advice from VAR. It was the correct call.
Jaroslav Silhavy’s side went for the throat. Another superb cross from Coufal found Pavel Kaderbek at the back post, but the left-back’s side-footed effort was blocked by the ever-impressive Denzel Dumfries.
In the 67th minute, the Czech pressure finally told. An inswinging free-kick from the right reached Kalas at the back post, the former Chelsea centre-back heading across goal for defensive midfielder Tomas Holes to head low and past Patrick van Aanholt on the line and send the Czech fans into delirium. The noise in the near-full house was deafening.
With 17 minutes remaining, Frank de Boer sent on Wout Weghorst, the 6ft 6in Wolfsburg forward finally giving the Dutch a target at which to send crosses – hitherto their attacks had been an exercise in self denial, cutting back to pass, pass and pass again instead of putting the ball in the box.
A one-man right flank, Dumfries was again to the fore as the Netherlands went in desperate search of an equaliser. The PSV right-back will attract a lot of interest this summer, but not even the 22-year-old prodigious gifts could inspire De Boer’s side back from the brink.
In the 80th minute, the Czech Republic put the game to bed. A long ball from keeper Vaclik was partially cleared, only for Holes – not content with scoring the opener – to surge forward and win the loose ball. Though the anchorman’s touch was a little heavy, he cut back superbly for Schik to score his fourth goal of the tournament with a cool first-time finish past the helpless Stekelenburg.
The Dutch were done in that moment and Barak could even have added a third late on. In truth, such was their impressive display, it would have been richly deserved. Not even the effervescent Danes will fancy facing them.
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