The Czech Republic must have been few people's favourites to emerge as Group A winners after their heavy opening loss to Russia, but Petr Jiráček's second-half goal won them the section as they left the co-hosts heartbroken.
Jiráček had struck the joint third fastest goal in UEFA European Championship history in the defeat of Greece on Tuesday which reignited his country's hopes, and although he waited until 18 minutes from the whistle this time around, the VfL Wolfsburg midfielder's second strike of the tournament was even more warmly welcomed. The Czechs will now contest a quarter-final tie in Warsaw next Thursday, while the co-hosts must settle for watching it on television.
The designated home team had won all five previous encounters between the pair, and that trend continued with the Czechs given home status in Wroclaw. The gusto with which the Polish national anthem was sung left no doubt as to which team would enjoy the crowd's favours, however, as did the collective holding of breath when Theodor Gebre Selassie's cross was deflected into the path of Václav Pilař. Beautifully poised in front of goal in the Czechs' opening two matches, the winger was uncharacteristically hurried and did not connect cleanly.
It was the same story at the opposite end for Robert Lewandowski, whose shot squirmed wide off his left boot after Jakub Błaszczykowski had stolen onto a loose Czech pass before feeding his team-mate. The ominous clouds that had gathered overhead finally broke just before kick-off, and the spectacular electrical storm raging above the pitch was then mirrored on it by Poland. Sebastian Boenisch and Eugen Polanski both shot wide when well positioned before Boenisch's dipping long-range effort was expertly turned aside by Petr Čech. For the Czechs, who had taken the collective decision to grow beards until their tournament was over, it was their closest shave for some time.
Missing the creativity of the injured Tomáš Rosický, the Czechs struggled for inspiration. However, as the elements finally relented, it became simultaneously clear that Michal Bílek's men had ridden out their own storm. Jaroslav Plašil's deflected shot was well held by Przemysław Tytoń, and when the Poland goalkeeper then spilled Pilař's low shot, he quickly plunged onto the loose ball ahead of the lurking Milan Baroš.
With only Pilař providing drive from midfield, the Czechs looked to their full-backs for impetus after the break. A Gebre Selassie centre from the right zipped invitingly across goal, and, on the left, a burst forward by the excellent David Limberský ended with him stabbing into the side netting. Another defender, Tomáš Sivok, might have provided the breakthrough had he expected a Plašil free-kick to reach him, but instead of heading cleanly, the ball ricocheted off his brow and Tytoń blocked.
With Poland seemingly a spent force, a Czech goal appeared likely, and when Tomáš Hübschman won possession, he sent Baroš haring forward on the break. The veteran forward showed his worth by waiting patiently before releasing the ball to Jiráček, who cut inside before firing beyond Tytoń. Marcin Wasilewski had the opportunity to deny the Czechs, if not save his own side in the closing stages, but headed over, and Michal Kadlec cleared off the line to leave the co-hosts in tears.