RIGA - If it wants to qualify for Euro 2008, the Latvian team already has its work cut out. On Sept. 2, Latvia narrowly lost its first qualifying match of the new campaign 1-0 against Sweden in Riga.
When these two sides last met in October 2003, Latvia pulled off a major shock by beating the Swedes 1-0 in Stockholm; a result that guaranteed the Latvians a play-off spot - and two games later - a place in the 2004 European Championship Finals.
Such is the quality of the teams in Group F that any loss on home soil in this campaign does not bode well for that national team's chances of making it to the finals in Switzerland and Austria in just under two years' time. With talented opposition in the form of Spain and Denmark to come, as well as a resurgent Icelandic team who easily won 3-0 away in Northern Ireland in their first game last week, Latvia will only be expected to finish fourth or fifth from its qualification group.
With only two teams qualifying from Group F, this home defeat against Sweden means that Latvia will have to pull off some shock victories along the way if their players are to emulate the team of 2002-2004, which went all the way to Portugal.
And yet it could have been so different, as all three Latvian forwards had strikes on goal in a frenetic final minute which ended with the ball rolling agonizingly past Sweden's far post, and Latvian trainer Jurijs Andrejevs clutching his head in disbelief as Sweden hung on for three points.
There hadn't been much to choose between in the first half, until Maris Verpakovskis fired just over the bar from 6 yards after 24 minutes with Swedish keeper Rami Shabans frozen in surprise. That scare seemed to galvanize Sweden, which had looked decidedly second-gear until then.
A sensational goal line clearance by Maris Smirnovs on 38 minutes seemed to have kept the sides at parity, but as the ball ran loose to Dzintars Zirnis, he failed to clear his line and allowed the ball to fall to Niklass Aleksandersons. The IFK Gothenburg player coolly played the ball along the face of the eighteen yard box for Kim Kalstroms to slot it home into the net via the underside of the crossbar.
In the second half, Sweden looked to frustrate their Baltic Sea neighbors, with Tobiass Linderots controlling the tempo in midfield. Yet Sweden looked unable to kill the game off, and with time running out, Latvia brought on Girts Karlsons and the diminutive Marians Pahars, who was making his first appearance for the national side in two years after a series of injury problems.
The presence of Karlsons gave Latvia the strength and aerial presence they had been missing throughout the game, and Rubins almost snatched an equalizer on 75 minutes when his effort from the edge of the box was turned around the post.
With just sixty seconds left on the clock, Girts Karlsons hit a power header on a floated cross from the right wing. Shabans made a spectacular save to his right, but the ball fell loose to Maris Verpakovskis, whose curling right-footed shot looked destined for the Swedish net. As Marians Pahars dived in to get the decisive touch in front of Sweden's keeper, he inadvertently miscued and set the ball spinning agonizingly wide of the post; a miss that guaranteed all three points for Sweden and might yet come back to haunt Latvia in their 2008 Euro campaign.