Thu, Jun 14, 2012 - Page 20 News List

EURO 2012: Czech Republic’s young stars save the day

AP, WROCLAW, POLAND

Two Czech midfielders know what it means to strike at the right time.

After a demoralizing start to the Euro 2012 tournament, the two rising stars of Czech soccer — Petr Jiracek and Vaclav Pilar — became saviors for their team and not for the first time.

They struck early in a 2-1 victory over Greece in Group A to keep the team in contention for the quarter-finals, after a 4-1 loss to Russia.

Jiracek collected a superb through pass from Tomas Hubschman three minutes into the match at Wroclaw’s Municipal Stadium, before adding a clinical finish for his second international goal.

“I just needed to control the ball after a wonderful pass from Tomas and had just the goalkeeper [Costas Chalkias] to beat,” Jiracek said. “I needed such a goal, and I’m happy it came and helped the team succeed.”

Pilar, known as the “Czech Messi,” added the second just three minutes later from close range, despite having two markers on him, for his second goal of the tournament. Pilar beat both defenders to a ball sent across the goal by defender Theodor Gebre Selassie.

“I went in very hard to meet the cross and got to the ball with my knee,” Pilar said. “I tried hard and it paid off. This was a big goal for me.”

The two midfielders had already made an impact before the tournament.

The Czech Republic were struggling in qualifying when the 26-year-old Jiracek and the 23-year-old Pilar came in to rejuvenate a team weakened by the absence of retired stars such as Pavel Nedved, Karel Poborsky and Vladimir Smicer.

Their creativity helped increase the team’s attacking force in a crucial 4-1 victory at Lithuania, a result that secured a playoff spot for the team.

In the first leg of the playoffs against Montenegro in November, Pilar found the net from 20m, setting his side on its way to a 2-0 win.

Jiracek scored the only goal of the second leg, after bursting past two Montenegro defenders and scoring with a low shot to maintain a record of reaching every Euro since Czechoslovakia split in 1993.

Last year, the two midfielders were club teammates in Czech champion Viktoria Plzen’s first Champions League campaign. The team finished third behind European powerhouses Barcelona and AC Milan in the group stage and earned a spot in the Europa League. Their performances did not go unnoticed.

Besides earning regular spots in the national team, Bundesliga club VfL Wolfsburg signed Jiracek in December to a contract until 2016, and Pilar is expected to follow him after this tournament.

When the two play with captain Tomas Rosicky, the Czech midfield are once again a force to be reckoned with.

The Czech Republic face Poland on Saturday in their final match in Group A.

“I’m happy to score two goals,” Pilar said. “Now we have a chance to advance.”

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