RIGA - At long last the qualifying group stages for the 2006 World Cup in Germany are over, with just five places remaining for the second-placed teams to fight it out for. The Baltic states didn't even come close to making it, although they can at least console themselves that they were up against some tough opposition.
Estonia did the best out of all three sides, finishing fourth in Group Three, six points behind third-placed Russia.
In its penultimate group game, Estonia lost 1-0 away to Slovakia on Oct 8. The hosts won the game when Peter Hlinka scored in the 76th minute, rattling the post with a shot before heading in the rebound.
Estonia then went on to beat Luxembourg 2-0 in its final group game on Oct. 12. The result didn't help them any, other than perhaps restoring a little lost pride. Andres Oper scored both goals, first in the seventh minute, and then netting a late penalty in the 79th minute.
Latvia didn't play in the Oct. 8 round of games as it was already a game ahead of most of the other group teams. But a disappointing qualifying campaign ended with a 3-0 rout by Group Three winners Portugal on Oct. 12, leaving it in fifth place in the group.
Portugal forward Pauleto scored twice to break the legendary Eusebio's national scoring record. The Portuguese had already assured their place in Germany and the Latvians provided little more than training practice for them.
The hosts went ahead after 18 minutes when Pauleta latched on to a long pass from midfielder Nuno Maniche and fired home. Pauleta then scored two minutes later from a pass by winger Luis Figo to better Eusebio's record of 41 goals for his country.
Latvia was under siege throughout the entire game. Its only chance to score came when Portugal goalkeeper Joaquim Quim blocked two shots in the 42nd minute by forward Vits Rimkus and midfielder Andrejs Rubins. But Portugal secured a comfortable victory when midfielder Hugo Viana scored in the 85th minute.
Having come through their campaign undefeated, Portugal coach Luis Felipe Scolari, who led Brazil to World Cup victory in 2002, said that his side was good enough to win the 2006 World Cup.
Lithuania did the worst out of the Baltic states, finishing one place above Group Seven losers San Marino, and winning only two out of its 10 group matches.
It lost 2-0 at home to eventual group winners Serbia & Montenegro on Oct. 8. The Serbs dominated the game, with Mateja Kezman scoring in the 42nd minute and Zvonimir Vukic getting the second with a sweet shot two minutes from time.
In its final game Lithuania drew 1-1 at home against Belgium on Oct. 12 in front of 2,000 supporters. Belgium took the lead in the 17th minute through Karel Geraerts, but Lithuania equalized in the 38th minute thanks to an own goal from Olivier Deschacht.
Also in Group Seven, Spain was forced into a frustrating play off despite thrashing San Marino 6-0 in its final game.
In all, 27 teams have qualified for the World Cup as a result of topping their group or claiming the best-runners up spots. The final five places will be decided by a series of global play-offs played on Nov. 12 and 16, which will see the three seeded sides, the Czech Republic, Spain and Turkey play against the three unseeded sides, Norway, Slovakia and Switzerland. Meanwhile Uruguay will face Australia, and Trinidad & Tobago will play Bahrain for the remaining two places.