WROCLAW, Poland - Under fire for poor performances in qualifying and booed after a demoralizing loss to Russia, Czech Republic coach Michal Bilek is now an unexpected success at the European Championship.
The Czechs looked set for a short stay at the tournament after being defeated 4-1 by Russia until victories over Greece and co-host Poland took them to the quarterfinals for the first time since 2004.
Not only that, the Czechs finished top of Group A after their 1-0 victory over the Poles in Wroclaw on Saturday. They could now face any team from a tough Group B — Germany, the Netherlands, Portugal or Denmark — in Thursday's quarterfinals in Warsaw. The goal is to reach at least the semifinals.
"Now, a medal is at stake. And we want it," Bilek said. "I'd like to avoid the Germans — they are in great shape here and are among the tournament's favourites."
He said he was happy for his players and he didn't take the surprising results as personal satisfaction.
"I don't need people to cheer me," Bilek said. "It's nothing new that our fans react negatively to me, but I don't have it on my mind."
The 47-year-old former Czechoslovakia midfielder has faced a huge challenge since taking charge in 2009 to rebuild the team following the retirement of its star players. Besides goalkeeper Petr Cech, every other position has undergone a major change.
Defenders Zdenek Grygera, Marek Jankulovski, David Rozehnal and Tomas Ujfalusi have all departed. Captain Tomas Rosicky is the last member of an attack-minded midfield made up of Pavel Nedved, Karel Poborsky and Vladimir Smicer — a driving force behind the team's march to the Euro 1996 final and the 2004 semifinals.
Up front, Bilek can't rely on Jan Koller, the towering striker who is the best Czech Republic scorer of all time with 55 goals.
Bilek's start was disastrous. In the first Euro 2012 qualifying game against Lithuania in 2010, the Czechs lost 1-0 at home and were in trouble. They continued to struggle in the campaign and Bilek's preferable lineup with Milan Baros as a lone striker failed to impress.
But Bilek has been working patiently on the changes and added new talented players that have helped the team qualify for the tournament co-hosted by Poland and Ukraine.
Attacking midfielders Vaclav Pilar and Petr Jiracek came last year as unknown players from the provincial club Viktoria Plzen, but gradually became reliable starters and scored two goals each at Euro 2012. Another newcomer Theodor Gebre Selassie is solid in defence. With some major stars, including Cech and Rosicky still in place, Bilek's new team is starting to win over the critics.
And the players stand behind the coach.
"Many have been criticizing Michal Bilek," Baros said. "But he has shown he's an excellent coach."