RIGA - A capacity crowd of 10,000 watched Latvia earn a well-deserved 1:1 tie with Russia on Aug. 17. On the face of it, to tie a team with higher international pedigree was an impressive result for Latvia 'sparticularly given the great issue of pride connected to this particular opponent. The result leaves Latvia fourth in their World Cup qualifying group. Next year's World Cup finals in Germany look increasingly out of reach.
Although last year's play-off win against Turkey, which guaranteed qualification for the 2004 European Championships, and the subsequent games in Portugal were the most important in Latvian football history, the visit by Russia was arguably the most eagerly anticipated match ever played in the Baltic state. Tickets for the clash sold out a month in advance, and media interest matched the hype that usually only surrounds Latvia's World Ice Hockey Championship games.
Backed by a vociferous crowd, the Latvian team went straight for the jugular, not allowing the Russians to settle into their game. Vit Rimkus broke down the left wing and instead of crossing into the crowded penalty area, he delivered a pinpoint cross to Vitalijs Astafjevs on the edge of the box. The Latvian captain took the ball on the full volley and powered it spectacularly into the left corner of the Russian net from 20 yards out to give the Latvians a shocking sixth minute lead. The Russian team was in disarray, and within two minutes, what should have been a simple back pass to the Russian keeper was missed as he raced out of his box. Maris Verpakovskis ran on to the loose ball, but from a tight angle with the goal at his mercy, his shot was scrambled off the line by the Russian defense. The ball again ran loose but fortuitously spun into the arms of the Russian keeper 's a wake up call for the Russian side.
It wasn't until the 16th minute that the Russians had their first credible shot on goal. However, they did begin to control the midfield as the game progressed, and in the 25th minute gained a slightly fortunate equalizer.
The celebratory Russian fans behind the opposite goal threw firecrackers onto the pitch, which led to the game being disrupted for some minutes. Then there were two bookings in the space of three minutes as the two sides fought for midfield superiority.
Latvia threatened to take the lead again in the 43rd minute as they counter-attacked with four players against two. However, Astafjevs's misplaced pass was cut off by the Russian defense, and within seconds the Baltic state found themselves on the backfoot as Andrey Karyaka shot just over the Latvian crossbar from 25 yards out.
Many might have expected the Latvian team to start the second half defending, but just like in the opening minutes of the first half, they took the game to the Russians. Verpakovskis went close in the 48th and 50th minutes, and the Russian keeper spectacularly tipped a 63rd-minute free kick by Juris Laizans over the bar.
Russia looked most dangerous from corners as the Latvian defense persevered with a zonal-system rather than man-to-man marking from corner kicks. Kolinko was forced into one point-blank save in the 83rd minute, and in the 88th minute, Vladimir Bystrov turned another free-header from a corner over the bar when it looked easier to score. It was backs to the wall stuff from the Latvian defense as the Russians laid siege to their goal in the closing minutes.
In the second minute of injury time, a deep cross from the left wing evaded everybody including the Latvian keeper. The ball clipped the underside of the bar with Kolinko all at sea, but as the Russians appealed to the linesman that the ball had crossed the goal line, the ball ran loose for yet another corner.
In the end, a draw was probably a fair result. The Russians only produced their best football in the final 15 minutes of a game that otherwise could have gone Latvia's way.
Portugal remains the strong favorite to win the group, with Russia, Slovakia and Latvia chasing the second-place play-off berth. They must now take six points from their next two World Cup qualifying games against Estonia in Tallinn on Sept. 3, and Slovakia in Riga on Sept. 7; and hope that Russia and Slovakia slip up in their forthcoming games.