RIGA - Dreams of the Copacabana and the Maracana in the summer of 2014 remain no more than that after the latest round of World Cup qualifiers saw Estonia and Latvia fail to keep pace with the top teams in their respective FIFA World Cup qualifying groups, while only Lithuania appear to have any realistic chance of staying in contention for a place in Brazil.
Only the top team in each of the nine groups in the European section of World Cup qualification are guaranteed a place in Brazil, with the eight best second-placed teams entering a round of play offs to determine which four teams will join the group winners on the planes to Rio. With this in mind the three Baltic teams desperately needed wins over some of the lesser fancied teams in their groups on a packed night of World Cup qualifying action on October 12.
Latvia got off to the worst possible start against Slovakia, conceding two goals in Bratislava in the first nine minutes: first to Slovak star Marek Hamsik from the penalty spot, after a foul from Latvian keeper Vanins, and then to Trabzonspor midfielder Marek Sapara. Having already narrowly lost to Greece after earlier being thrashed by Bosnia in their two opening qualification matches, Latvia knew that anything less than a point against the Slovaks would leave them seven points adrift of their hosts, who would move up into second place in group G with a victory. A resilient second half performance from Latvia saw them pull a goal back in the 84th minute through Maris Verpakovskis from the penalty spot, but they were unable to grab the equalizer that would have left them still in contention in the group.
Group rivals Lithuania meanwhile, came through their Friday evening match against minnows Liechtenstein – ranked 155th in the world – with a 2-0 away victory thanks to a second-half double from the Rostov midfielder Edgaras Cesnauskis. Lithuania had to wait until the 51st minute to break the deadlock in Vaduz.
A spectacular 25-yard strike from Hajnal gave Hungary the three points against Estonia at the A Le Coq arena in Tallinn. Hungary had several chances to put the game beyond their hosts but almost paid the price when veteran striker Andres Oper was denied an 85th minute equalizer for Estonia thanks to a dramatic double save from the Hungarian keeper Bogdan. The 1-0 defeat for Estonia leaves Hungary still hopeful of qualifying for their first major tournament since 1986, while the boys from Tallinn must hope for a miraculous change in fortunes when the World Cup qualifiers resume next year, with the gap between them and second-placed Romania opening up to nine points.
Estonia finally got off the mark on Tuesday night with a 1-0 away victory against Andorra. Andres Oper was first to react when Estonia hit the cross bar on 57 minutes, diving to spectacularly head the ball into the net, giving Estonia all three points.
Latvia also notched their first points of the Brazil 2014 campaign with a 2-0 victory at home to Liechtenstein. Playing with three strikers, including the lively Maris Verpakovskis, Latvia broke the deadlock on 29 minutes when Kamess coolly finished at the back post after a period of sustained pressure from the hosts. Latvia took advantage of their opponents being reduced to ten men after the hour mark when substitute Edgars Gauracs raced through clear on goal in the 77th minute and dispatched his shot low into the bottom right hand corner of the net to guarantee the three points.
Meanwhile, Bosnia went top of Group G with a comfortable 3-0 win over Lithuania. Edin Dzeko was amongst the scorers as Bosnia scored all three goals in the space of 12 minutes during the first half.
Elsewhere, it was one of the more unusual nights of world cup qualifying football with Sweden coming back from four goals down to draw 4-4 with Germany; France scoring with the final touch in their match to draw 1-1 with reigning world and European champions Spain; Northern Ireland holding Portugal 1-1 at the Estadio do Dragao and Ireland restoring some sense of pride by beating Faroe Islands 3-1. Poland’s match with England was called off because of torrential rain at Warsaw’s 500 million euro stadium!