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The Czech Republic pulled off a major surprise to beat the holders and favourites Italy 3-2 with a 'golden goal' winner in a thrilling semi-final against Italy in the UEFA European Under-21 Championship in Zürich's Hardturm stadium.
Substitute Michal Pospísil scored the decisive goal for the Czechs - and his second of the game - eight minutes into the first period of extra-time when he steered home the ball after Libor Zurek's surging run had exposed the Italian defence. The Czech side, who will meet France in the final on Tuesday, showed remarkable psychological strength to win the game. Miroslav Beránek's team had looked as though they were coasting to victory when, with just seven minutes remaining they were 2-0 up.
But a Andrea Pirlo penalty - cheekily chipped home - reduced the deficit and then three minutes into stoppage time with practically the last kick of the game a wonderful turn, run and shot from Massimo Maccarone sent the game into extra time and the lottery of a 'golden goal'. Two years ago in Bratislava, Italy had taken the 2000 crown with a 2-1 final victory over the Czechs to continue their domination of an event they have won in four of the last five tournaments. Two years ago, of course, the senior Italians lost out to France in the EURO 2000™ final courtesy of David Trezeguet's 'golden goal'.
This Czech side of Beránek's, full of strength and pace, brought to mind the success of the full Czech Republic side of EURO 96™, who against all the odds reached the final of that tournament. "I'm really delighted with my players for the tremendous effort they put in during extra-time and how they overcame a very special atmosphere with so many Italian supporters," said the Czech coach. "They played with heart and great football intelligence. I have a number of players in this side who can score goals and the changes that we made proved to be crucial." Pospísil added, "We were desperately to concede the equaliser towards the end but our substitute players told us that we had nothing to fear in extra-time."
During normal time Italy had dominated possession, but it was the fleet of foot and mind Czechs who created the better openings, with Milan Baroš, who hit the bar early in the second-half and Stepan Vachousek, tormenting the Italian defence. Despite having plenty of the ball Italy struggled to create chances and when they did, they normally fell to Pirlo, who twice in good chances, was less than peerless in his finishing. It was Pirlo, who two years ago, scored both Italy's goals in the final.
In the game's opening minute Claudio Gentile's side had been left reeling by going behind when Ivan Pelizzoli was unable to hold David Kobylík's free-kick and David Rozehnal looped his header home despite the desperate efforts of Matteo Ferrari and Paolo Cannavaro to clear. The Czechs had to defend for the rest of the first half, but after the restart Beránek's men were more threatening and it was no surprise when, after another cross from the left, this time from Rudolf Skacel, Pospísil lunged to poke the ball past Pelizzoli.
Cue that hectic last seven minutes as Tomás Hubschman hauled down Maccarone in the box to give away the penalty and then the man from Empoli FC cracked home his third goal of the tournament. "It is a bitter defeat for us and to concede a goal so early on obviously did us great damage," said Gentile. "But my team continued to show determination after the Czechs' second goal. Their reaction was magnificent. They fought tremendously in those closing minutes to get back into the game, but we find ourselves out of the competition because of a 'golden goal' which is always a sad way to lose a football match."
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