With his flowing locks, tireless endeavour and goals from midfield, Petr Jiráček could easily be portrayed as the natural successor to Pavel Nedvěd that the Czech Republic have been looking for since the all-action midfielder retired in 2006.
The similarities do not end there. Nedvěd was a relative unknown when he arrived in England for EURO '96, but ended the tournament a headline act after the Czechs' surprise run to the final. Jiráček was in a similar position 16 years later, and two group-stage goals, including the winner against Poland to clinch a quarter-final place for his country, have certainly thrust him into the limelight. With the Czechs reaching the last eight this year, memories of when Nedvěd and Co stunned Europe before then progressing to the semi-finals of UEFA EURO 2004, have naturally been evoked. Jiráček, however, rejects any parallels between that vintage and the current crop of Czech talent.
"They keep comparing us but I think it's a foolish thing to do. The team then was almost the best team in Europe and they proved it in each match as well as in tournaments," the VfL Wolfsburg man told UEFA.com. "Maybe we're a bit under pressure from that point of view, because the Czech team had such a good name and now people expect us to reach the final every time. So, maybe we're at a bit of a disadvantage. But we're trying to achieve the same success, and we'll see if we manage to do it."
Though Jiráček may bridle at the suggestion, there is one quality Michal Bílek's side share with their more illustrious predecessors: teamwork. Players such as Nedvěd, Karel Poborský and Vladimír Šmicer used their individual talents for the greater good, just as stars like Tomáš Rosický and selfless forward Milan Baroš have done in Poland and Ukraine.
"I think this has been a characteristic of ours for some years now.
Our team is not formed by individuals. Our strength is the team ethic, something which we all adhere to. I think one can see it in every match we play and it's our biggest asset," said Jiráček, who was at a loss to explain why the Czech Republic excel at EUROs. "Maybe we manage to prepare well for these tournaments and even though, most of the time, we are the outsider as opposed to the favourite, we are able to surprise."
The Czechs have certainly raised a few eyebrows in their fifth successive EURO finals tournament. Few would have bet on Bílek's men reaching the last eight, never mind claiming top spot in Group A, following their 4-1 loss in their opening game against Russia. However, Jiráček's early goal against Greece laid the platform for a restorative 2-1 win before his crucial strike against the co-hosts.
"I'm not saying we wouldn't like to win the tournament, we believe we can, that's why we are all here and, naturally, we want to go as far as possible," said Jiráček, who is aware his team will again be cast in the role of underdog when they step out at the National Stadium Warsaw on Thursday. "This match will be difficult, just as every game has been here at the EURO. Portugal are one of the favourites. They have great and famous players, but they will approach this game with humility. We'll do our best, put everything else aside, and try to cope."
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