SoccerMatch Report

Portugal leave it late to beat Czech Republic in their Euro 2024 opener

Spirited Czechs unfortunate to lose after Conceição’s late, late goal

Portugal's forward Francisco Conceicao. Photograph: Gabriel Bouys/AFP via Getty
Group F: Portugal 2 (Hranac og 69, Conceicao 90+2) Czech Republic 1 (Provod 62)

Penny for Roberto Martinez’s thoughts as Cristiano Ronaldo stood over a central free-kick with 57 minutes on the clock. Rain was pelting down as the Al Nassr striker let fly, straight into the sticky gloves of Jindřich Staněk.

Perhaps the Portugal coach was thinking: I’ll spring Pedro Neto and Francisco Conceição from the bench for the pair to put these inspired Czechs away.

That is exactly what transpired on a raucous night in Leipzig.

Diogo Jota initially looked to have gotten the winner for Portugal in the 87th minute, tucking away the rebound after Ronaldo’s header came back off the post, but VAR intervened and ruled Ronaldo offside.


The Czech Republic seemed to have earned a point until Conceição’s late, late tap-in.

The 2016 European champions were pounding at the Czech Republic door all game, to no avail, so imagine what might happen if these disciplined underdogs could conjure a chance. Just the one.

Remarkably, a great upset almost occurred. On this night of chasing lost causes, David Douděra ran another down. He was successful and duly hit a looping cross that found the relentless Vladimír Coufal who invited Lukáš Provod to let fly. Czech Republic 1-0 Portugal.

But the dreams of a historic result lasted only seven minutes. Robin Hranáč was having the game of his life, until the umpteenth high delivery into the Czech box saw Nuno Mendes soar over replacement David Jurásek.

Keeper Jindřich Staněk, who was on a personal mission to not be beaten by Ronaldo, got fingers to the bouncing ball but only directed it onto Hranáč's shin, for an own goal and a Portuguese equaliser.

It was cruel yet fully deserved on the balance of possession alone.

In the simplest tactical parlance, Czech coach Ivan Hašek embraced the Portugal approach. Come to Zentralstadion and prise us open, the 60-year-old dared the most expensive collection of club footballers in the world.

If Portugal are crossing or cutting balls back from the end line, the Czech rearguard is doing its job.

Cristiano Ronaldo of Portugal acknowledges the fans. Photograph: Alex Livesey/Getty

No stars in white. Tomáš Souček of West Ham United and Patrik Schick of recent Bayer Leverkusen fame are quality internationals, but this was 90-plus-minute tutorial in attack versus defence.

Bernardo Silva and Bruno Fernandes looked were giddy with excitement whenever the Czechs attempted to counterattack. The millisecond play was broken up, usually by João Cancelo or an overly ambitious pass, the Manchester rivals snapped to attention.

In the 20th minute, the midfielders combined to almost put João Cancelo away. In the 32nd minute, Fernandes rolled a delicious ball that invited Cristiano Ronaldo to chip Staněk. The Czech goalkeeper made a brilliant save with his leg.

Ronaldo, now 39, came in search of records. Sixth tournament, check. He already has the most appearances (25) at the Euros, the most goals (14) and is currently tied with Karel Poborsky on six assists.

He would also have the record for oldest player in Euros history, if it wasn’t for his own team-mate bumping him into second place, the 41-year-old Pepe.

Becoming the oldest goal scorer at a Euros almost happened when his early header grazed the post and just before half-time when Staněk denied his second shot on target.

That the sky opened early and the downpour refused to relent was a godsend for the Czechs.

Ronaldo was equally effective dropping into space, with one flick putting Vitinha clean through only for Lukáš Provod’s subtle jersey tug to be missed by referee Marco Guida.

The Italian made no mistake when flashing a yellow card at Leão after the winger dived into the box despite no contact from Souček, who promptly congratulated the official.

The city of Leipzig played into the occasion. Unlike most venues at Euro 2024, this underground amphitheatre is walkable from the central train station.

Three sets of supporters descended upon the Red Bull Arena. Ronaldo fans travelled in the shape of families from Asia and North America to witness their hero in the flesh. Most of them wear Portugal number seven shirts without transferring their devotion to Seleção. More comparable to Taylor Swift fanatics – the Swifties – they blended easily into this carnival atmosphere.

The third contingent was an enormous Czech following, what with Prague being just a three-hour drive across the border.

Still, Ronaldo’s sprint on to the pitch for the warm-up, to the MGMT song Kids, felt like the start of his own stadium tour.

Keeping him as the focal point of almost every Portugal attack does make a lot of sense, but Hranáč and Vladimir Coufal relished each and every aerial duel.

Hranáč was immense. Think Paul McGrath at the Giants stadium. All that was needed was a goal against the run of play. And then it came and the number of Czechs in the red-coloured stadium suddenly became apparent.

A famous draw was denied late on by Conceição with Hranáč again making an uncharacteristic error under severe pressure.

Portugal: Costa; Dalot (Inacio 63), Pepe, Dias; Cancelo (Semedo 90), Silva, Fernandes, Vitinha (Conceição 90), Mendes (Neto 90); Leão (Jota 63), Ronaldo.

Czech Republic: Stanek; Holes, Hranac, Krejci; Coufal, Sulc (Sevcik 79), Soucek, Provod (Barak 79), Doudera; Kuchta (Lingr 60), Schick (Chytil 60).

Referee: Marco Guida (Italy).

Gavin Cummiskey

Gavin Cummiskey

Gavin Cummiskey is The Irish Times' Soccer Correspondent