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Czechs aim to defy underdog status vs Portugal

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WROCLAW, Poland — With Cristiano Ronaldo finally finding his scoring touch, Portugal is widely expected to knock the Czech Republic out of the European Championship when the teams meet in the quarterfinals.

That sounds familiar to the Czechs.

They were underdogs when they faced the same opponents in the last eight at Euro 1996, but stunned Portugal's supposed golden generation which included Luis Figo and Rui Costa before progressing to the final.

The Czechs can look back to the class of '96 as a source of inspiration ahead of Thursday's match in Warsaw.

Goalkeeper Petr Cech said Monday the team will be fighting to defy its underdog status and reach the semifinals of the tournament for the first time since 2004.

"It's clear who the favorites are," Cech said. "But we'll be trying to prove that the favorites don't have to necessarily always win. This is a particularly strong opponent but we haven't lost yet."

The Czechs aren't considered to be title contenders this year and looked set for an early exit from the tournament when they lost 4-1 to Russia in their first match. However, victories over Greece and co-host Poland took them to the quarterfinals.

The Czech Republic also started the 1996 tournament in England as the undisputed outsider and lost its opening group-stage match to Germany, before eliminating Italy, Russia, Portugal and France en route to losing in the final to Germany.

The Czechs frustrated Portugal in that campaign by adopting defensive tactics and converting its only opportunity — Karel Poborsky's spectacular lob over goalkeeper Vitor Baia.

"We find ourselves in the same situation like in 1996," said Bayer Leverkusen defender Michal Kadlec, whose father captained the Czechs that year. "We have a good reason to think about it."

The two Czech teams have more in common than just being underdogs.

In 1996, the majority of squad members were still based in the domestic league and their performances at the Euros triggered the first mass exodus of Czechs to major European leagues after the collapse of communism.

Among them, Poborsky's career took off after a brilliant "falling leaf" goal against Portugal, with the speedy winger joining then-English champion Manchester United.

The current squad also has unusually high number of Czech-based players — seven — compared with previous major events and they came to the tournament eager to impress. Some have succeeded.

Defender Theodor Gebre Selassie is being linked with a move to Werder Bremen and attacking midfielder Vaclav Pilar, who has scored two goals at the Euros, is set to join another Bundesliga club, Wolfsburg.

And there's still the team spirit, a common denominator for Czech squads for decades.

"Our current team is mentally even stronger and more stress-proof," said Czech team manager Vladimir Smicer, who played against Portugal in 1996.

With the defense a main focus against a Portuguese attack that features Ronaldo and his former Manchester United teammate Nani, the Czechs still have to find a scorer able to emulate Poborsky.

"Someone has to do it, no matter who," Cech said.