Wingers and a prayer enough for Portugal to prevail
IT HAD seemed as though the whole “Chelsea as plucky underdogs,” line might have had its last outing of these European Championships when Giovanni Trapattoni packed his bags and headed for home, but Raul Meireles has since been beating the same drum, with the midfielder claiming the Portuguese might somehow upset the apple cart by lifting the title here in 10 days’ time.
“Chelsea won the Champions League when nobody considered them as favourites,” he says in relation to the Londoners’ win over Bayern Munich. “When we began this tournament, nobody mentioned Portugal as one of the favourites. So the best example for me is what I experienced with Chelsea this year in the Champions League. If we manage to do the same it will the realisation of a dream.”
The 29-year-old is, to be fair, at least as entitled as the Republic of Ireland manager to cite the example of the club he plays for and it actually seems just a little more appropriate given the quality of some of the Portuguese players.
Still, the Czech Republic might justifiably feel aggrieved that anyone is trying to steal away their status as underdogs ahead of the first quarter-final this evening in Warsaw against opponents who many would have rated as having an outside chance of the title . . . as long, that is, as they made it out of a tough looking group.
Like the Irish, both of these teams lost their opening game of the championship, although clearly for each of them things improved markedly after that.
Of the two, the Czechs’ revival has, in its way, been the more impressive, if only because it was so much more unexpected. Michal Bilek’s side were awful against Russia in their first game and even after winning the next two to emerge as group winners, they arrive into the knockout stages as the only team to have progressed with a negative goal difference.
Bilek deserves credit for the way he has changed things slightly within the team and picked his players up in the wake of what looked like it might have been a crushing defeat.
The defence, in particular, has been reorganised and solidified, while the midfield has been re-energised, especially the wide men, Petr Jirasek and Vaclav Pilar, who have provided the team’s goals, and Tomas Rosicky, who has been at the heart of its attacking impetus.
The Arsenal player returned to training yesterday after three days back in Prague to have treatment for an Achilles tendon problem but still looks a major doubt for tonight, with Daniel Kolar on standby to come in, a switch that would most likely lead to a positional reshuffle in the middle of the field, where another of the squad’s most experienced figures, Jaroslav Plasil, is likely to be handed responsibility for directing things when the team are on the front foot.