Limping Czechs Are Run Out

By Jason La Canfora
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 23, 2006

HAMBURG, June 22 -- Somehow, the Czech Republic let it all slip away. The team's decisive start to the World Cup, its smashing midfield play, its status as the early front-runner in Group E, all of it was for naught. After opening with a demolition of the United States, the Czechs never looked the same, and they bowed out of the World Cup meekly on Thursday with a 2-0 loss to Italy at AOL Arena.

The team that crushed the Americans, 3-0, in its first game June 12 ended the tournament minus-1 in goal differential, and it would have been much worse without the heroic play of goalkeeper Petr Cech in a 2-0 loss to Ghana on Saturday. Midfielder Pavel Nedved, a former world player of the year, put all he had into these games, his country's first World Cup appearance as the Czech Republic, but too few others did the same, and an injury-depleted strike force offered no help.

Italy (2-0-1) moved on as the group winner and will face the second-place team from Group F (Australia) in the next round, Ghana (2-1-0) will play Group F winner Brazil and the Czechs (1-2-0) were left to contemplate a tournament that quickly spiraled out of their grasp.

"I think that the decisive match didn't take place today," Czech Coach Karel Bruckner said through an interpreter. "It was against Ghana, where we were supposed to get the points, and it didn't happen."

Thursday, Bruckner faced another crisis with his forwards and never quite coped, playing a lone forward for almost the entire game despite needing two goals against a defensively stout opponent. For the first 20 minutes, the Czechs were the better team but had no fit finishers in the lineup. When they lost midfielder Jan Polak to a second yellow card late in the first half, things became even more difficult.

Forward Jan Koller, a huge target and a commanding presence in the opening win over the United States, was still out with a leg injury suffered in that game, and star Milan Baros was forced into Thursday's lineup in this desperate situation, but the speedster also was recovering from a long-term injury and clearly was not fit. Baros sprinted around, hoping to make something of nothing, but his touch was erratic and when he did receive the ball with a chance to score, he muffed it away. Without much support, Baros was useless as the Italians kept ample bodies back to defend.

"I don't want to make any excuses," Bruckner said. "However, this tournament caught us in a period of heavy losses, speaking in terms of our lineup and our reserves."

Bruckner wore a long face in what could be his final news conference as Czech coach. The moderator warned reporters of the coach's mood, but he spared his players any criticism save for their failures on corner and free kicks and the accumulation of yellow cards, which marred the Czechs' last two contests.

"I really don't understand [the ejections], because I did warn my players about that, even in written form," Bruckner said. "I said, 'Ejections, that's the end of the game and you can't revert the match to your liking.' "

Once Italy substitute Macro Materazzi, replacing injured Alessandro Nesta, scored off a corner kick in the 26th minute, the Czechs were in trouble. Polak, replacing the injured Tomas Galasek, was handed his second yellow card of the game in the 47th minute. Filippo Inzaghi converted a breakaway in the 87th minute to ensure the Czechs' fate, and the Italians were roaring on the sidelines, with midfielder Gennaro Gattuso nearly smacking Coach Marcello Lippi in the face during one embrace.

"It was his way of showing his affection," Lippi said. "He's kind of a rough guy."

Lippi sparred with reporters throughout his news conference, alternately joking and chiding and launching into verbose defenses of his secrecy about revealing his lineup before games. He could afford to slip into levity and to lecture if he liked. Bruckner's tone never changed Thursday afternoon, and it will be a somber trip back to the Czech Republic.

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