This feature is a part of RETEUROSPECTIVE
Heading into the fixture on 14 June 1996, Italy had already won their opening match, a 2-1 triumph over Russia on Merseyside. The Czech Republic had not experienced such joy against Germany, going down to a two-goal defeat at Old Trafford.
As the Italians and the Czechs squared up to each other before this Euro 96 Group C encounter, there was a sense around Anfield that this clash could decide the runner-up spot. With tensions and excitement both high, captains Paolo Maldini and Miroslav Kadlec exchanged official business before the sides kick-started an absolute classic contest between two talent-filled squads.
It didn’t take long for Dusan Uhrin’s charges to take the lead. In the fifth minute of the match, Karel Poborsky produced some nimble footwork down the right flank before delivering an exceptional cross with his left boot that took the Italian backline by surprise. Wrong-footing everyone, the ball sailed into the box where the diminutive Pavel Nedved was waiting. One-on-one with Angelo Peruzzi, he deftly controlled the bobbling ball with his midriff and poked it into the back of the net.
Nedved would make his first appearance as a Lazio player two months later, but you can guarantee Serie A transfer negotiations were not on his mind as half the crowd erupted in jubilation. Wheeling away in celebration, he was swamped by teammates with the score at 1-0.
Fabrizio Ravanelli and Enrico Chiesa combined after the restart with the latter having a shot blocked away to safety as they tried to get their country back into the game with immediate effect. Italy continued to pass the ball with purpose, seeking an equaliser, but the Czechs weren’t about to let the Azzurri back into the game easily. Across the park, they hassled and harried their opponents with great effect.
A move on the break, though, would see the 1968 competition winners find the back of the net. Chiesa combined well with Diego Fuser to complete a sweeping move inside the area, beating two defenders to the ball sent in from the right as he connected with a clinical flourish.
Nedved could have doubled his tally moments later but for a slip in the box with the ball at his feet and the goal at his mercy. At the other end, Chiesa continued to cause problems with his pace and determination as he looked to stretch the opposition defence. In the 29th minute,
Luigi Apolloni was dismissed from the field of play for a second bookable offence, and that proved to be a drastic turning point that became crucial in determining the outcome. From there, the Czechs seized the initiative and took the lead for the second and final time, just ten minutes before the culmination of the first period.
Again, Italy would be undone thanks to some incisive work down the right wing. This time, Pavel Kuka was the instigator with some industry to get free from his markers to dink a delightful cross into the centre of the danger zone where Radek Bejbl was waiting to pounce and slam the ball home with ferocious power.
Italy refused to give up, and they continued to fight for an equaliser following the restart. In the 66th minute, Maldini got his foot to a loose aerial ball at the back post, but the talismanic skipper could only hoist his effort over the bar from close range. Moments later, Chiesa produced some clever movement off a throw-in to create a few yards of space before pivoting to rifle a long-range effort that whizzed inches beyond the upright.
Poborsky came up with yet another magical contribution when Czech Republic were awarded a free kick in the final quarter-hour of the match. He sent a smooth delivery from outside the area, and not far from the byline, into the heart of a crowded 18-yard box to set his side up to extend their lead to two goals and seal the tie. However, Jan Suchoparek couldn’t steer the chance home despite wriggling free at the back stick.
Vladimir Smicer could also have converted when he was played through on goal, but Peruzzi produced a stellar save to give Italy some slender hope as time ebbed towards full time. Not long after that, and it was the flamboyant Poborsky who was left frustrated by the Italian shot-stopper with a close-range effort that was smothered with aplomb.
Italy would have the last significant chance of the game, though, when Gianfranco Zola shuffled his feet with style and flair to navigate beyond a couple of tackles before picking Pierluigi Casiraghi out with a delightful pass. The number 18’s first touch was majestic, setting himself up with a clear shot at goal. His second was anything but. Hastily and without composure, he skewed the ball with his right foot as it arrowed high and over the bar.
Arrigo Sacchi’s men couldn’t find the breakthrough they needed, and although both teams would draw their final two group games, and Italy held a marginally better goal difference, it was the Czech Republic who progressed, owing to their superior head-to-head record.
By Trevor Murray @TrevorM90