Czechs gatecrash Swiss party
A late, opportunist goal by striker Vaclav Sverkos enabled the Czech Republic to kick off their UEFA EURO 2008 campaign with a 1-0 win over co-hosts Switzerland. A match, which was settled in the 70th minute, was overshadowed by what appeared to be a serious injury to Switzerland's captain and leading goalscorer, Alexander Frei.
Having cleared their lines, the Swiss back four was caught flat-footed when Marek Jankulovski directed a powerful header back over the top, enabling substitute Sverkos to sprint clear before beating goalkeeper Diego Benaglio with the outside of his right boot from 12 yards.
It was a fine piece of finishing but a painfully cruel blow for a Swiss side that was repeatedly frustrated by their opponents' outstanding goalkeeper, Petr Cech, and the hosts were denied an equaliser when substitute Johan Venlanthen's shot came back off the post.
The fact that Jakob Kuhn's squad had not played a competitive match in nearly two years was belied by a high-tempo start which might have yielded a goal after barely two minutes, when Frei's shot slid narrowly wide of Cech's right-hand post with the goalkeeper struggling to cover.
That set the tone for a first-half in which a combination of energetic pressing by the Swiss and the penetration of Lazio's Valon Behrami down the right flank restricted the Czechs to a handful of counter-attacks, their only moment of menace coming from David Jarolim's deflected cross which almost caught out Benaglio in the 13th minute.
The co-hosts, in contrast, might easily have been ahead by the break but for the habitual efficiency of Cech. Having blocked goalbound shots from Behrami and Gokhan Inler, the Chelsea goalkeeper came swiftly off his line to deny Frei at close range after the Swiss captain had been allowed to run on to Benaglio's box-to-box punt.
Frei was to provide one more demonstration of why he has plundered 35 goals in 60 appearances for his country -- a swerving drive from 30 yards that Cech could only beat away -- before tragedy struck three minutes from the break.
As he contested a 50-50 ball with Czech right-back Zdenek Grygera, the Swiss captain's left knee appeared to lock against his opponent's leg and he slumped to the turf in agony.
Minutes later he was limping from the pitch in tears, the hush that had descended on the St-Jakob Park stadium telling its own story about the implications for the co-hosts for the rest of the tournament.
Frustration for the Swiss
The inevitable substitution was delayed until after the interval, when Frei's replacement, the veteran Hakan Yakin, had an immediate impact, drawing Tomas Galasek into a trip on the edge of the area and then curling the resulting free kick inches over.
Nearly an hour had elapsed before the Czechs finally generated their first clear chance, Libor Sionko glancing Marek Jankulovski's free-kick wide after the inswinging delivery had found him unmarked six yards out.
Switzerland responded by carving out an equally gilt-edged opportunity of their own, Hakan planting his header wide from eight yards after a fine cross from overlapping right-back Stephan Lichsteiner.
The cost of that miss was to become apparent minutes later when Sverkos, a second-half substitute for the ineffective Jan Koller, fired the Czechs into the lead.
Switzerland battled to the end but a bitterly frustrating evening was to be summed up when Vonlanthen's follow-up crashed against the woodwork after Cech had parried Tranquillo Barnetta's low shot from the edge of the area.