Jiracek saves the Czechs again
When it comes to saving the Czech Republic at the European Championship, midfielder Petr Jiracek is emerging on the Czech team as the man to beat.
In the absence of injured captain Tomas Rosicky, the 26-year-old playmaker battled tirelessly in midfield and scored the decisive winner in a 1-0 victory over Poland that fired the Czech Republic to the European Championship quarterfinals for the first time since 2004 after the team won Group A with six points.
''To advance in first place is fantastic,'' Jiracek said.
The team was struggling in the first half without its usual playmaker Rosicky.
It's been a fantastic year for Jiracek. Last year he was noticed while playing in the Champions League for his Czech club side Viktoria Plzen, losing out in the group stage to Barcelona and AC Milan. He soon found himself signed by Bundesliga club Wolfsburg in December and playing regularly for the national team.
After suffering a demoralizing 4-1 loss to Russia in the tournament's opener, The Czechs returned with a 2-1 win over Greece
With Greece beating Russia 1-0 on Saturday, the Czechs needed a win to advance and Jiracek made it possible with his second goal of the tournament.
It came from a quick counterattack in the 72nd minute, when he collected a pass from Milan Baros in the box, cut right to pass Poland's Marcin Wasilewski and right-footed the ball inside the far post.
''We had a poor start but we gradually improved, started to create chances and finally, we deserved to score,'' Jiracek said. ''We all worked hard, everyone played. I'm glad we came back and showed the strength of the team. I'm really proud that we came back after the loss to Russia and responded to criticism with two wins.''
Before receiving the ball, he had run across the field to be in the right place to strike.
''I was already totally exhausted,'' Jiracek said. ''But we're at the European Championship and I said to myself that I may never get another chance like this. Everything was at stake. We just all played at 120 percent.''
Jiracek was substituted in the 84th minute by Frantisek Rajtoral, several minutes after a swerving drive by Lukasz Piszczek hit him in the head and he had to be treated by team doctors.
The team was struggling at the first half without its usual playmaker Rosicky.
''Tomas is essential for us,'' Jiracek said. ''We're all calm when he's on the field. ''Without him, we all knew we have to play better than usual and that's what we did.
If Rosicky recovers for the quarterfinals at Warsaw and joins Jiracek in midfield, the Czechs will have a creative force that might be good enough to successfully replace retired stars such as Pavel Nedved, Karel Poborsky and Vladimir Smicer.