Lisbon (José Alvalade)
The 2-1 defeat at the hands of the Czech Republic means that for the second successive European Championships, the Germans have fallen at the first hurdle and the future must look increasingly bleak for coach Rudi Voller and his fallen stars.
World Cup Finals and Wembley Golden Goals will this morning seem a million miles away to the German nation as they come to terms with the fact that their team is simply not good enough to compete with the best in Europe.
But for the Czech Republic, who had already qualified as group winners, the story will go on at least until a quarter-final meeting with Denmark. Everybody's "dark horse" became only the fourth side ever to win all three of their group games and must now be taken as serious title contenders.
Four years ago, the group of death proved a bridge to far for the Czech's but this time they passed through with flying colours and showed their resilience by coming from behind in every match to triumph. This despite making several changes to side that defeated Holland four nights ago. There was no room for Poborsky, Nedved, Baros or Koller in the Czech starting 11, but they showed they had plenty in reserve to cope with the pressures of championship football.
The Czechs now go into the knockout stages brimming with confidence and will be in the unfamiliar position of favourites to progress at the hands of the Danes. Although many of the players who starred last night may not see much more action in this tournament, they served a timely reminder that the Czechs have strength in depth as well as a first 11 capable of beating anyone on their day. They have now not lost a European Championship game, either in the qualifiers or finals, since France beat them 2-1 in the second group match four years ago.
For Germany, the post-mortem into how a nation with such a proud and successful history can fall at the first stage for the second time in the last three major championships will be long one. Voller and his players can expect a somewhat different reaction from the one that awaited them after the World Cup. Certainly, Nowotny and Worns in the centre of defence are too slow to compete at this level and the likes of Bernt Schneider and even Oliver Kahn are past their best while players such as Kevin Kuranyi and Deitmar Hammann failed to take their domestic form with them to Portugal.
However, amidst the wreckage there may yet be hope for the World Cup on home soil in two years time. Michael Ballack covered every inch of grass and did not deserve to be in the losing side and in Bastian Schweinsteiger and Luckas Podolski the Germans have two excellent young talents on their hands. They can also look to right back Philipp Lahm who had an excellent tournament.
In Lisbon last night, all eyes were on Germany and they looked to Ballack for inspiration. 19-year-old Schweinsteiger started in the middle of the park which meant there was no place for veteran striker Fredi Bobic as Stuttgart star Kevin Kuranyi was given the task of leading the German line by himself.
Such a defensive move will surely be questioned in the German press as they failed to impose themselves on the game in the first 45. However, the half was salvaged by two of the best goals of the tournament so far.
It was the Germans who took the lead in the 21st minute when Ballack connected perfectly with Schweinsteiger's lay-off from 20 yards to leave Blazek in the Czech goal helpless. The Bayern Munich man can now add a European Championship strike to his three goals at the World Cup finals two years ago.
The lead lasted only nine minutes though as the Czechs bounced back thanks to a Marek
Heinz free kick. The Banik Ostrava player curled a cracking left foot shot over the German wall to beat the diving hand of Oliver Kahn at his near post. It was Heinz' second goal of the tournament after his winner against Latvia and the Czech league's top scorer soon had the fans forgetting about Nedved and co as he ran the show for the Czech Republic.
With elimination staring them in the face, the German's began the second half with far more purpose and seemed determined not to go down without a fight. The team that emerged for the second half were every bit as sharp and decisive as they had been lackadaisical in a first half that at times resembled a pre-season friendly. Indeed, the Germans missed a handful of chances before Czech substitute Milan Baros finally put the second round out of reach.
Schneider had his drive well saved by Blazek eight minutes after the re-start and Ballack fired just wide from 30 yards in the 64th minute. The Bayern star went even closer two minutes later when he found space just inside the box and beat Blazek only to see his shot come back off the post. The rebound fell invitingly for Schneider but the midfield man hit his shot into the ground and Blazek was able to punch clear.
Schneider then passed up another great chance on 70 minutes when he headed Lahm's cross over the bar from only seven yards. Schneider was involved again when the Czechs somehow got out of jail in the 72nd minute. His corner was headed goalward by half time substitute Lukas Podolski only for Tomas Hubschman to clear the ball off the line. Podolski seemed certain to score from the rebound but Blazek saved brilliantly and the Czechs bundled the ball to safety.
Such is the way football goes, the Germans were soon made to rue those missed opportunities. In the77th minute, the excellent Heinz sent Baros away and the Liverpool man held off the German defence only for Kahn to save with his feet. The ball squirmed out of Kahn's reach and Baros was able to roll the ball into the empty net for his third of the competition.
It was the first time Germany had gone behind at these finals but they never looked like drawing level. Despite sending on another striker in the shape of Miroslav Klose, Voller's men looked a beaten team as the Czech's comfortably played out the game until its conclusion.
In the end, it was a Jekyll and Hyde tournament for the German's but, unfortunately for them, there was two much Hyde in between the first half against Holland and the second half in the Jose Alavada last night.
Germany: Kahn, Friedrich, Worns, Nowotny, Frings (Podolski 45), Hamann (Klose 79), Lahm, Schneider, Ballack, Schweinsteiger (Jeremies 86), Kuranyi.
Subs Not Used: Lehmann, Hildebrand, Hinkel, Baumann, Bobic, Brdaric, Kehl, Ziege, Ernst.
Booked: Nowotny, Lahm, Worns.
Czech Republic: Blazek, Jiranek, Bolf, Rozehnal, Mares, Galasek (Hubschman 45), Plasil (Poborsky 70), Tyce, Vachousek, Heinz, Lokvenc (Baros 59).
Subs Not Used: Cech, Kinsky, Grygera, Jankulovski, Smicer, Koller, Rosicky, Nedved, Ujfalusi.
Referee: Terje Hauge (Norway).