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Titanic 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


Coach 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 disappointed."

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




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