HARD ROAD: Baltic football clubs meet their match in the first round of qualifications.
This week the national football teams of all three Baltic States begin their journey to do what no one from their country has done before in attempting to qualify for the 2014 FIFA World Cup. Despite each country having reason for optimism ahead of the qualifying campaign, which begins on Sept. 7, it will take nothing short of a major miracle for any of the three nations to advance past the first round of qualification.
Latvia and Lithuania have been pitted in a particularly tough Group G alongside 2010 FIFA World Cup finals participants Greece and Slovenia, whilst the job ahead of Estonia is looking no less difficult in a Group D featuring 2010 World Cup runners-up The Netherlands, and an ever-dangerous Turkish outfit.
With a FIFA ranking of 12, Greece are favorites in Group G, with their visit to South Africa three years ago marking their second finals appearance at a football world cup. Despite only carrying a current FIFA record of 42, Slovakia will also be expected to finish in the top-two of Group G, after going as far as the last 16 in the rainbow republic. Lithuania and Latvia will need at worst draws against one or both of these nations to have any realistic chance of finishing top of the group, as well as victories over Bosnia-Herzegovina and Liechtenstein.
Even victory over Liechtenstein is far from a guarantee, as Lithuania learned in 2011, with a 2-0 away loss to the tiny mountain municipality, derailing their chance of gaining an historical berth at Euro 2012.
“I have to admit that the draw was a good one for us considering the teams which have been drawn together in other groups,” Greek head coach Fernando Santos was quoted as saying on fifa.com in reference to Group G. But the Portuguese national still erred on the side of caution, adding, “Nevertheless, we can’t afford to take our group lightly because we face some strong opposition in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Slovakia. We’ll need to be careful of teams like Lithuania and Latvia too.”
Latvia will arguably be fielding their strongest team since they qualified for Euro 2004, with three players plying their trade in strong foreign leagues. Captain Kaspars Gorkss currently plays for the recently promoted Reading in the English Premier League; midfielder Aleksandrs Cauna is based in Moscow with Champions League club CSKA Moscow, and Artjoms Rudnevs will this season play for Hamburg in the German Bundesliga.
Lithuania’s team will be predominantly made up of players competing in the local domestic league, but do have the advantage of a wealth of talent in goal. First choice keeper, Zydrunas Karcemarskas, currently plays in Turkey for Gaziantepspor whilst back-up goalie Giedrius Arlauskis plays for Rubin Kazan in Russia. Arlauskis has only made five appearances for the national team since 2008, after falling out with former manager Raimondas Zutautas. However, with Zutautas out, Arlauskis could well be in under new manager, Hungarian Csaba Laszlo, who has become manager to the team for the World Cup qualification campaign.
In 2011, Estonia was the talk of the European football community when they unexpectedly came within a match of qualifying for Euro2012. However, in a number of friendlies since then, pickings have been slim for the Blueshirts who have suffered a number of heavy losses in friendly matches. They did, however, receive a boost by defeating Poland 1-0 in their most recent outing on Aug. 15.
The Estonian team come from far and wide with only two players playing in Estonia, and others traveling from as far afield as China and the United States for the qualification campaign. With an aging roster, the team was expected to peak for this qualification campaign, but like their qualifying campaign for Euro 2012, more than one major upset will be required for the northernmost Baltic nation to come even remotely close to finishing in the top two in their group.
Hungarian coach Sandor Egervari identified Group D as containing four genuine footballing nations, a list in which Estonia failed to feature on, with most predicting the world’s 49th ranked team to finish fourth in the group behind The Netherlands, Turkey, Hungary and Romania.
It will be against the Romanians that the Estonians open their campaign on Sept. 7. Latvia also kicks off their campaign on the 7th when they play Greece, whilst Lithuania takes on Slovakia on the same night.