Prague: The Czech Republic will enter the last-16 game against the Netherlands tonight at Euro 2020 as the odds-on favourites, at least when it comes to the history of their head-to-head encounters.
Since the Czech Republic emerged as an independent state in 1993, its national team has won five games and lost three against the Dutch, on top of three draws.
Before that, Czechoslovakia memorably beat the Netherlands on the way to their only European Championship title in Belgrade in 1976, having edged Johan Cruyff and company 3-1 after extra time in the semi-final.
Czechoslovakia were not there to stop the Dutch when they won the 1988 title in West Germany.
But Czech fans cherish above all the memory of an epic battle at Euro 2004 in Portugal, won by the Czechs who came back from 2-0 down to win 3-2.
“People still remember that one best,” says Vladimir Smicer, the former Lens and Liverpool winger, who scored the decider after a selfless pass from Karel Poborsky.
Aside from those two, the star-studded Czech team comprised Petr Cech, Pavel Nedved, Tomas Rosicky, Jan Koller, Milan Baros and Tomas Galasek, who spent a decade playing in the Netherlands.
Galasek is now an assistant to Czech coach Jaroslav Silhavy, who was in turn an assistant to coach Karel Bruckner in Portugal.
“The team was really fantastic. We all played in top clubs. It was the most total football we ever played,” said Smicer, who now works as a Euro studio pundit for Czech Television.
“Everyone at home went crazy after the comeback. People started to believe we could win the whole Euro,” Smicer added.
Both teams went on to reach the last four at the 2004 tournament, with the trophy lifted by Greece who beat the Czech Republic on a silver goal in the semi-finals.
The first win by an independent Czech Republic dates from Euro qualifying in 1995 - the Czechs won 3-1, advanced to the tournament and finished as runners-up.
The latest sweet memories are as recent as the Euro 2016 qualifying campaign.
The Czech Republic beat the Netherlands twice, 2-1 at home and 3-2 in Amsterdam, the latter when Robin van Persie scored a bizarre own goal to help the 10-man Czechs advance to the finals while the Dutch stayed at home.
In that game, the first goal was scored by Pavel Kaderabek, who may appear in the Czech line-up on Sunday as a replacement for Jan Boril, ruled out by suspension.
“Every player remembers his national team goals, so I can still recall that game,” said the Hoffenheim defender.
“It was a pretty crazy game. But if people ask me to pick one special game against the Netherlands, I won’t say 2004 but 2015,” Kaderabek added.
Boril’s place may also be taken by Brescia defender Ales Mateju, who spent half a season at PSV Eindhoven as a youth player in 2014.
“I remember meeting Memphis Depay on the pitch, but it’s been a really long time,” Mateju said, refusing to view the history as an advantage.
“I guess we have a better head-to-head record, but time has passed and we are now facing a really strong team. They won the group so easily.”
Assistant coach Jiri Chytry said the Czechs would go into the game as the underdogs, as so often in the past against the Dutch.
“We consider the Netherlands one of the top teams, one of the favourites of the tournament,” he said.
“But if we give our best, we are able to face anyone.”
Czech captain Vladimir Darida was in doubt whether he would start against the Netherlands after picking up an unspecified injury in training.
Meanwhile, the European Championship is finally giving Memphis Depay the chance to shine on the big stage.
The Netherlands forward has two goals and two assists heading into the match tonight and has scored seven goals in eight games in 2021 and, at 27, he’s entering his peak years.
Depay’s mercurial ability played a large part in the team’s three wins in the group stage at Euro 2020, with the soon-to-be Barcelona forward scoring or creating half of the eight goals.
“He showed how important he is for us. He’s a player with special qualities,” Netherlands defender Daley Blind said. “He can do magical things with the ball.”