By RYAN LUCAS, Associated Press
WROCLAW, Poland (AP) — All it took was one strike from Czech midfielder Petr Jiracek to bring an end to the European Championship dreams of 40 million Poles.
Jiracek scored with a stylish second-half shot to lift the Czech Republic to a 1-0 win over Poland, putting the Czechs through to the quarterfinals and knocking out Euro 2012 co-host Poland.
With the victory, the Czechs finished atop Group A, and will play the runner-up of Group B in the knockout stage in Warsaw next week.
After withstanding a first-half barrage from Poland, the Czechs pushed forward in the second half looking for an opening. It came on a counterattack in the 72nd minute, when Jiracek collected a pass from Milan Baros in the box, cut right to clear past Poland's Marcin Wasilewski and slotted the ball inside the far post.
"We had a poor start but we gradually improved, started to create chances and finally, we deserved to score," Jiracek said.
Poland, which had to win to advance, immediately brought on two attacking players in the last 30 minutes to push for a goal, but struggled to create any serious threats.
After the final whistle, the Czech players swarmed each other on the pitch. The Poles fell to the ground, covering their faces.
"I think that probably we were too sure about winning this game. The Czechs played excellent football," Poland coach Franciszek Smuda said. "We had some opportunities before halftime, we didn't take advantage of them and we lost the game."
The Czechs pulled off the win despite playing without their captain and playmaker Tomas Rosicky, who was sidelined with an Achilles tendon injury.
Without his creative skills the Czechs were listless in the first half, struggling to put together any fluid passing and reduced to knocking long balls forward. But as the Poles pushed forward in the second half in search of a goal to put them through to the quarterfinals, more space began to open up in midfield.
That space gave the Czechs the opportunity to strike on the counter, and the punishment came with Jiracek's second goal of the tournament. He also opened the scoring in a 2-1 victory over Greece.
Poland responded well, though, and the final chances were all for the home team.
A cross from the right was deflected to the far post, where Marcin Wasilewski met the ball with a header that just cleared the crossbar. Minutes later, Jakub Blaszczykowski's angled effort was cleared off the line by Michal Kadlec as the Czechs sealed their place in the last eight.
"With the time passing, we had to open up more and more, and I think this is the reason we conceded a goal on the counter," Blaszczykowski said.
The loss is a huge disappointment for Poland fans, who were hoping for the country's first European Championship win, which would have put them through to the quarterfinals. The country had rallied around the team since the tournament opened last week, and fans' hopes were boosted by the Poles' solid performances in their first two Euro 2012 matches.
But even with the raucous support of the capacity crowd of 41,000 at Municipal Stadium, the team failed to come through, even against a Czech side playing without its best player.
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