The Czech Republic showed they are a team ready to compete with the heavyweights of European football after a run to the quarter-finals at Euro 2020 that ended in a 2-1 defeat to Denmark.
Boosted by a core of the Slavia Prague team that reached the Europa League quarter-finals, knocking out Leicester City and Scottish champions Rangers on the way, the Czechs used an energetic high press to create turnovers and launch quick counter-attacks.
These tactics were on display in a 2-0 win over the Netherlands in a last-16 match in which a well-organised Czech squad stymied the Dutch attack before capitalising on a red card to upset their more-fancied opponents.
Yet the determined Danes, who scored two first-half goals, proved too strong for the Czechs, ending their hopes of reaching a first European Championship semi-final since 2004 and a first final since 1996.
Midfielder Antonin Barak said their run at Euro 2020 gave them something to build on as the team eye the next World Cup and sent a message that smaller countries like the Czech Republic, Denmark and Switzerland could make their mark at big tournaments.
Under coach Jaroslav Silhavy, the Czechs regrouped after failing to qualify for the 2018 World Cup and began to rely on younger players such as Bayer Leverkusen forward Patrik Schick, whose stunning effort from near the halfway line in their opening 2-0 win over Scotland is perhaps the goal of the tournament so far.
Schick also netted against the Danes to give the Czechs a glimmer of hope and ended the tournament as the team’s leading scorer with five goals.
The Czechs made a solid start to the tournament, with the victory over Scotland and a 1-1 draw with Croatia, but failed to produce a similar performance in a 1-0 loss to eventual group winners England at Wembley.
They were tactically superb in their last-16 win over the Netherlands to set up the encounter with Denmark.
Since 1996 the Czechs have qualified for every European Championship and progressed past the group phase four times, but have not made much of an impact on the international stage since reaching the last eight at Euro 2012.
That began to change under the guidance of former defender Silhavy, who has forged a team with a core of Slavia Prague’s current and former players, including West Ham United duo Tomas Soucek and Vladimir Coufal.
During qualifying the Czechs beat England 2-1 at home yet still doubts lingered as to whether the squad had what it took to emerge from a group that also included 2018 World Cup runners up Croatia and a Scotland side playing at home.
In doing so, the Czechs showed they will be a team to watch in the future and, with their mix of experience and youth — including 18-year-old Sparta Prague forward Adam Hlozek who earned valuable tournament experience — they will be a tough opponent for whoever they face.