task for underdogs
If Latvia were expecting the balls to fall kindly at the UEFA
EURO 2004 draw in Portugal following their heroic play-off
victory over Turkey they could not have been more wrong.
Thursday, 4 December 2003
Aleksandrs Starkovs was just popping his eyes back into
position after being paired with the Netherlands in Group D
only for the European minnows to land Germany and tournament
dark horses the Czech Republic too. It was a cruel draw for a
side who have never advanced to the finals stage since
becoming an independent country in 1991.
But Starkovs refused to be downhearted, insisting that Latvia
had already achieved more than they could have dreamed of by
qualifying for the tournament. "It will be very
tough," he said. "All three have won the tournament
in the past. We will start all three games as underdogs but we
will have the eyes of Europe on us so I am not too
Starkovs has every reason to be positive ahead of their
opening game against the Czech Republic in Aveiro on 15 June.
In stark contrast to their neighbours Russia, Latvia's record
away from home is mightily impressive. Wins against a Swedish
side who had been unbeaten since 1997, Poland and that
memorable 2-2 draw in Istanbul which put them into the finals
proved Latvia have earned their right to dine at European
football's top table.
One man who will not be taking the Latvians lightly is German
captain Oliver Kahn. "This is a very, very tough
group," confessed the experienced goalkeeper. "After
their performance in the play-off against Turkey, there is no
reason to underestimate Latvia."
German coach Rudi Völler, who closed his eyes in horror after
being drawn against bitter rivals the Netherlands, echoed
Kahn's sentiments, adding that his side would be underdogs in
two of their games. "There is no reason to
celebrate," he said. "This is a very difficult
group. We could have had it easier. The Czech Republic and
Netherlands are very classy teams, and given their past
results, have a better chance to advance."
Germany open their campaign against the Netherlands in Porto
on 15 June in a match which gives Dick Advocaat's side the
perfect opportunity to exact revenge for their defeat in the
1974 FIFA World Cup final. And, despite all the commotion,
Netherlands midfield player Ronald De Boer scoffed at
suggestions that this was the group of death.
"People are saying it is the hardest group of all but I
don't think so," said De Boer. "We always said we
wanted Latvia and the Germans did not impress me in their
recent match against Scotland. They will be hard to beat but I
am sure we can progress to the quarter-finals."
Once again the Czech Republic stand in the way of Dutch
dominance. Coach Karel Brückner's iron-willed outfit topped
the Netherlands' qualification group and many believe they are
a good bet to do so again in Portugal. There is no doubt the
Czechs have the beating of Advocaat's erratic side and a win
in their opening game against Latvia will give them the
immediate psychological advantage - especially if Germany and
the Netherlands draw.
The Czechs not only possess the style of the Dutch and the
resilience of the Germans, they also have perhaps the best
attacking midfield player in the competition in the shape of
Pavel Nedved. Any team which can keep Nedved quiet deserves to
win this group. - Pete Sanderson