Petr Cech was the hero as the Czech Republic defeated pre-match favourites France 3-1 on penalties to win the UEFA European Under-21 Championship after a scoreless draw at the Saint Jakob stadium in Basel.
After his superb display ensured the match finished goalless, Cech then made two saves in the penalty shoot-out before Jean-Alain Boumsong struck his effort against the crossbar and over to shatter France's dreams. It was harsh on Boumsong in particular, who had again been totemic in the French defence. Despite dominating the early phases, however, his team never looked like repeating the easy victories of their previous four games in this tournament, which included a 2-0 win against the Czechs in the competition opener.
'History remembers winners'
Czech coach Miroslav Beránek was in ebullient mood afterwards, revealing that his pre-match talk had served to inspire his players. "We spoke before the game and said how much we wanted to be champions, and I told the players that history only remembers the winners," he said. "France had an excellent first 30 minutes, and we were indebted to Petr Cech. In the second half we were better and were stronger than France."
French attack denied
Cech and his defence dealt with everything Sidney Govou, Steed Malbranque and Pegguy Luyindula in the French attack could throw at them, making sure they went one better than in 2000, when they lost 2-1 at this stage to Italy. France had gone into the game with the same starting lineup which had ejected hosts Switzerland 2-0 in the semi-finals, while the Czechs kept Michal Pospíšil, who scored the 'golden goal' against Italy, on the bench.
Czechs under pressure
The opening period was France's best, and this was when the Czech back-line had to be at their most alert. Govou was especially dangerous, but clear-cut chances always were few and far between. Malbranque did have shooting chances from outside the area, but it was Govou who forced the first save from Cech on 14 minutes after placing the ball through Tomás Hubschman's legs. Soon afterwards Cech did well to stop a Jérémie Bréchet header at close range, but already the early French pressure was receding. Indeed, as the first half ended, the main Czech worry was the fact they had already had to substitute Martin Jiranek and Milan Baroš.
Landreau plays his part
However, in the second period it was clear they need not have been so concerned. What attacking play there was increasingly came at the French end, and now Mickaël Landreau was the busier of the goalkeepers. His best stop came on the hour when he dived to deny Rudolf Skacel, but as the end of normal time approached both teams seemed to tire, with bookings and substitutions outnumbering attempts on goal despite both teams forcing several corners.
No 'golden goal'
Extra time came but even the incentive of a 'golden goal' could not inspire either attack against defences well marshalled by Boumsong and David Rozehnal respectively. So the trial of penalties for both teams, and having moved through each stage in a quieter fashion than France, the Czechs came into their own to claim the trophy.
It began well for France with Camel Meriem converting, but after that Pospíšil, Zdenek Grygera and Skacel made no mistake for the Czechs. The towering Cech blocked Pierre-Alain Frau and Julien Escude's efforts before Boumsong's shot flew over off the crossbar, the shoot-out ending 3-1.
Joy for winners
Ecstasy for the Czech Republic, finally erasing the pain of their loss to Italy two years ago. France will have to make do with the consolation of their stylish play in the first four matches, and the likes of Benoit Pedretti, Olivier Sorlin, Escude, Luyindula, and Boumsong can draw comfort from the fact it may not be too long before they are elevated to the senior stage.
'A great disappointment'
The luckless Boumsong, perhaps the pick of those players, looked to the future in admitting: "It's a great disappointment. We were very tired but we did our best and I hope the next generation will win it for us." Coach Raymond Domenech paid tribute to the Czechs, saying: "They were a strong team with more energy than us. They also had a great goalkeeper, not only in size, but in the way he played and that made all the difference."