The Czech Republic revived their hopes of reaching a second consecutive UEFA European Under-21 final after a deserved 1-0 win over Belgium, in which they were unlucky not to add to Martin Jiranek's 19th-minute goal.
Czechs bounce back
Belgium had won their opening Group 2 match against Greece, but they never looked likely to repeat that against today's opponents. The Czechs recovered superbly after their opening day loss to France and comprehensively outplayed Jean-François De Sart's side.
Czech coach Miroslav Beranek made six changes to the starting line-up for the French match, and his decision paid off with especially impressive performances from Tomáš Jun and Tomáš Hrdlicka. Belgium again started without leading striker Tom Soetaers, who had come off the bench to score against Greece, and by the time of his introduction at the halfway stage today, the match was already slipping away from his team.
Defenders work overtime
It was clear from the start what the pattern of the match would be, as Belgian goalkeeper Jean-François Gillet and defenders Jonas De Roeck and Birger Maertens were forced to work overtime to keep out a constant stream of Czech attacks. Jun went close after nine minutes when his shot hit the inside of the post and bounced back into Gillet's hands, but it seemed only a matter of time before the first Czech goal.
Jiranek makes no mistake
Within ten minutes of Jun's near-miss that goal arrived after a corner from the Czech right from David Kobylik was flicked on by Zdenek Grygera. The ball came to Tomáš Hrdlicka and his overhead kick fell to Jiranek, who made no mistake from close range.
Lead looks secure
Apart from a five-minute spell around the half-hour mark, the rest of the fierst period was dominated by the Czechs, and although they were only limited to long-range chances before the break by some good Belgian defending, their lead looked very secure.
Soetaers' arrival had ensured victory for Belgium over the Greeks, but this time he was able to do little as the Czech domination continued after the interval. Gillet was especially lucky five minutes in as a fortunate deflection allowed him to gather the ball surrounded by opposition forwards, and on the hour he was just able to tip a curling free-kick from an acute angle by Hrdlicka over the bar.
Though Belgium were at least able to prevent themselves being over-run in the final half-hour, an equaliser seldom looked on the cards. Having already seen their crossbar rattled, the Belgians then had to deal with the introduction of Liverpool FC's Milan Baros for Jun. Indeed, Baros nearly made it 2-0 when he struck the ball past Gillet, only to find he had been flagged offside, a very tight decision.
Three points safe
But the three points were in the bag for the Czech Republic and they will feel confident of another win on Tuesday against Greece, although Petr Vorisek is suspended. Belgium, who remain in second ahead of the Czechs on goal difference, stay in Geneva to face group-leaders France, who are already within touching distance of the semi-finals after beating the Greeks. Kevin van Dessel will miss the game after again being booked today.