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TIME FOR CHAMPAGNE: Ventspils comes out on top to take the Virsliga.
RIGA - The Latvian domestic league has gone the distance with the final game of the season needing to be played out before Ventspils could be confirmed as the 2011 champions. After 287 games had been played, the Latvian Virsliga would ultimately come down to 90 minutes with Ventspils needing to at least tie with last season’s champions Skonto on Sunday afternoon to remain one point clear of second place Liepaja Metalurgs, who picked up three points earlier in the day when they defeated Gulbene, 1-0.
Following a nervous 90 minutes, Ventspils celebrated madly with their game against Skonto failing to produce a goal, meaning that Sergei Podpali’s team was able to secure the one point they needed to hold off their closest rivals.
It is the fourth time that the yellows have won the Virsliga in the club’s 14-year history, after two former Ventspils teams, FK Venta and FK Nafta, combined in 1997, creating the new team.
Perhaps even more impressive is that all four of their Virsliga titles have been won since the 2006 season, with the club also finishing as runners-up in 2009 and 2010, showing the significant investment being put into football in the Latvian port city.
The Virsliga trophy will now sit on the mantelpiece alongside the Latvian Cup – a direct knockout competition – that Ventspils won earlier in the season, marking only the second time the club has claimed both trophies in a season.
Following the draw on Sunday afternoon, Latvian international midfielder Olegs Laizans immediately thought about the celebrations to come, telling UEFA.com, “I hope the coach will allow us to have a little champagne.”
48-year-old coach Podpali has reason enough himself to enjoy a celebratory drink or two, given that the success comes in just the Russian’s first year in charge of the club. “This was hardly possible to imagine early in the season when we started to create the team anew,” Podpali told UEFA.com, adding, “We need to start thinking how to become stronger next season and must prove our double was no fluke. Now the UEFA Champions League is looming.”
The chance to qualify for the UEFA Champions League is one of the main spoils that comes with winning the Virsliga, with only one qualifying spot granted to a team playing in the Latvian domestic league – a similar scenario facing clubs playing in the Lithuanian and Estonian domestic leagues.
The best that second and third place getters Liepajas Metalurgs and FC Daugava Daugavpils can hope for is to qualify for Europe’s second tier competition, the UEFA Europa League.
Following a forgettable season that saw them go from reigning champions to fourth place, Skonto will now turn their focus to next season and winning the Latvian Cup in order to book the last Europa Cup qualifying position open to a Latvian team.
Up in Estonia, their domestic league, the Meistriliiga, ended in only mildly less exciting circumstances. Going into their final two matches of the season, defending champions FK Flora Tallinn were sitting just a point clear of second-place FC Nomme Kalju, who still had one more match to play. However, Flora would only require one more of their two remaining matches to reclaim the title, scoring four unanswered second-half goals at home to defeat eighth-placed club Viljandi, 4-0, on Nov. 1.
The win took Martin Reim’s side clear of Nomme Kalju by four points, meaning that nothing was riding on the two team’s respective final games of the season.
After his team had secured the title for the ninth time since the club’s inception in 1990, Reim told UEFA.com that, “the last few months were pretty nervous for us. It’s true that to defend a title is much harder than to just win it.”
Like their Latvian counterparts Ventspils, the green and whites will also now have the chance to play in Europe’s premier club competition, the UEFA Champions League. It marks the fourth time that the club has made it to the qualifying round, but they are yet to go any further.
Nomme Kalju and third place JK Trans Narva now have the opportunity to attempt to qualify for the UEFA Europa League.
For the first time in their 14 year history, FC Levadia Tallinn finished outside of the top three teams in the Meistriliiga, claiming fourth spot overall despite being tied on 73 points with third-placed Trans Narva.
If they still wish to enter Europa League qualifying, they must do so in a similar style to Skonto in Latvia – by winning the Estonian Cup, a competition that works on the same premise as the Latvian Cup.