Bilek's men Czech out happy

After a 4-1 thrashing by Russia in their opener, many Czech supporters were braced for a bumpy ride but Michael Bilek's decision to play more defensively and lean heavily on a core of young players helped right the ship as they won Group A.

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 A Room In The Dwor Oliwski Hotel In Gdansk, Where The German National Football Team Will Be Based For The Euro 2012 AFP/Getty Images
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This picture taken on March 29, 2012 shows a room in the Dwor Oliwski hotel in Gdansk, where the German national football team will be based for the Euro 2012 football championships from June 8, 2012 to July 1, 2012. AFP PHOTO / JANEK SKARZYNSKI

"If somebody two-and-a-half years ago told me we would make it to the Euros, I don't think I'd have believed him," Bilek said after Portugal beat his team 1-0 in the quarter-finals.

Before this year's tournament nobody expected the Czechs to conjure up the kind of magic they did when the small nation made it to the final of Euro 1996 and the semi-final of Euro 2004.

A rough qualifying campaign started with a home loss to Lithuania that set the bar low and had many supporters - unhappy with Bilek's tactics and team selections - calling for the coach's head.

Faced with an angry fan base and an aging group of players, Bilek only turned things around when he rebuilt his team with a core of young players who he will again rely on when the World Cup qualifiers begin in September.

Midfielders Petr Jiracek and Vaclav Pilar accounted for all four Czech goals at the finals while Slovan Liberec defender Theodor Gebre Selassie put in solid performances that showed why he has attracted the attention of Werder Bremen.

Another bright spot for the Czechs is 21-year-old Vladimir Darida who surprisingly got his first start at a finals as stand-in for injured playmaker and captain Tomas Rosicky.

Euro 2012 was the first major tournament for all these young players.

"The fact that he has only played twice didn't concern me," Bilek said of Darida. "He knows how to play and how to finish."

While these players have bright futures, they do not have the pedigree of the likes of Vladimir Smicer, Pavel Nedved and Karel Poborsky who played key roles in the 1996 and 2004 teams.

Bilek will also struggle to fill a number of holes. Milan Baros is expected to retire from international football and no young strikers have shown they are ready to play at the highest level.

The loss to Portugal in a match decided by a Cristiano Ronaldo header also showed how much the team misses the injured Rosicky. Bilek must groom an understudy for the midfielder who will be 33-years-old by the time the next World Cup begins.

But at least there is a promising base to build on.

"We are very happy that we made it into the quarter-finals, especially after the first game," Bilek said. "We were able to show our character and our strength."

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