WROCLAW (Reuters) - The revitalised Czech Republic surprised even their own fans by reaching the Euro 2012 quarter-finals as Group A winners on Saturday as the hopes and dreams of co-hosts Poland came crashing down to earth with a thunderous thud.
Petr Jiracek's neat 72nd-minute strike sealed a 1-0 win and sent Poland out to the delight of a small corner of the rain-soaked Wroclaw stadium, where the majority of red and white clad fans could only rue a host of missed chances in the first half.
Poland, so full of joy and youthful exuberance during this tournament both on and off the pitch, can also look back on wasted opportunities in the opening draw with Greece and coach Franciszek Smuda said he was stepping down.
"My adventure with the national team is over," Smuda said afterwards. "It is a bitter pill to swallow. We were too sure about the possibility of winning. We had some opportunities in the first half, we didn't take advantage of them and we lost the game."
The only crumb of comfort for the broken supporters, who arrived for kickoff as huge bolts of lightning seemed to foretell their impending doom, was that old rivals Russia were also eliminated with a 1-0 defeat by quarter-finalists Greece.
Without a win in Euro finals, the victory they needed to progress at the Czechs' expense looked difficult on paper but in the first 20 minutes Poland should have had their neighbours buried.
Gangly front man Robert Lewandowski flashed a shot wide after a good move among the highlights of spurned chances.
The Czechs, humiliated in their opening 4-1 defeat by Russia and without injured playmaker Tomas Rosicky because of an Achilles problem, came into the game as the half wore on having weathered the Polish attacking storm and the driving rain.
Coach Michal Bilek has not been popular with Czech supporters and striker Milan Baros, who set up Jiracek for the goal, had even been booed by his own fans as their early campaign looked in disarray.
However, the battling 2-1 win over Greece and the ability to hang on against Poland and grab the goal when they finally got on top has suddenly sent them into the last eight as group winners with six points, even though they had negative goal difference
"We are satisfied because we beat a team that played at home," said Bilek, whose side will face the Group B runners-up in the last eight and will hope that does not turn out to be Germany.
"We weren't good in the first 25 minutes and then we improved. We have been in difficult situations but have been able to play as a team."
Rosicky's replacement Daniel Kolar was completely anonymous during the match and the Czechs will now do everything they can to get Rosicky fit but the skilful and lively Jiracek, as well as Vaclav Pilar and Jaroslav Plasil, offer a decent threat.
The Poles should have come out for the second half raring to go thanks to the wave of noise from the crowds who had made trams bounce up and down en route to the stadium.
Instead the Czechs took the initiative without being very incisive but broke through when Jiracek cut inside a defender before beating goalkeeper Przemyslaw Tyton, preferred to Wojciech Szczesny, for his second goal of the tournament.
Tournaments generally suffer for losing hosts early and with Ukraine also far from certain of progressing, UEFA will have to hope the buzz and fervour around the nations does not die down.
The Polish fans did their team proud with a rousing rendition of "Polska" towards the end and the applause for the Czech victors as well as their fallen heroes was also a nice touch, contrasting with the violence before the co-hosts' 1-1 draw with Russia on Tuesday.
(Editing by Brian Homewood)