The game preview
Latvia out to check Czechs
Two teams with contrasting ambitions at UEFA EURO 2004™ open the Group D proceedings in Aveiro on Tuesday. The Czech Republic have come to Portugal as a much-fancied outside tip to go all the way in the competition - while Latvia are viewed as the tournament minnows following their remarkable play-off qualification last autumn.
The Czechs are justifiably favourites to take the points - but it would be folly to disregard a Latvian side that was resilient and resourceful enough to grab a surprise and precious away win against fellow Portugal travellers Sweden to finish second in their qualifying group, followed up by an even more sensational result in the play-off against 2002 FIFA World Cup bronze medallists Turkey. After a gutsy 1-0 win in Riga, a marvellous comeback from a 2-0 deficit earned a 2-2 draw in Istanbul and an unlikely place in the EURO field this summer.
The latest team in the Latvians' sights are the Czechs, who are looking to summon the spirit of EURO '96™ when their polished, intelligent football took them to the final in England and the eventual heartbreak of a golden-goal defeat by Germany in the final. Many pundits are deeply impressed with the current squad's pedigree - a good few see the Czech adventure culminating in a place in the final at least.
Fast-track to finals
The Czech Republic stormed through their qualifying group, seven wins and a draw in eight matches and a 23-5 goal balance proving too much for the rest of a section which included the Netherlands. The remaining survivors of the 1996 vintage have been joined by a new generation that contains a wealth of tried-and-trusted talents on the European club scene, as well as newcomers from the European Under-21 title-winning outfit two years ago.
Latvia's admirable coach Aleksandrs Starkovs is concerned with forming a solid defensive block within a likely 4-2-2-2 formation. Goalkeeper Aleksandrs Kolinko is set to play despite a recent injury absence, while Igors Stepanovs and Mihails Zemlinkis are set for plenty of work in central defence. The versatility of Jurijs Laizans all over the field could also be used somewhere in Starkovs' line-up.
Vitalis Astafjevs can make a crucial contribution in central midfield. Up front, Starkovs has a clear choice - Maris Verpakovskis, scorer of the Istanbul play-off equaliser, and tall partner Andrejs Prohorenkovs are his preferred front duo, with the pacy Marians Pahars unlikely to start after long-term injury troubles.
Heroes of '96
The Czech Republic have no injury worries ahead of the match. Their game, a flexible 4-4-2 system, is based around the outstanding Juventus FC playmaker Pavel Nedved - a 1996 hero - and skilful midfield partner Tomáš Rosický. One of the finds of the 1996 adventure, Karel Poborský, remains a constant threat to defenders on the wide left, while Tomáš Galásek provides the defensive midfield cover.
Further forward, BV Borussia Dortmund's massive 2.02m spearhead Jan Koller will test Latvia's mettle alongside the deceptively powerful Milan Baroš, a UEFA European Under-21 Championship winner two years ago. In defence, René Bolf and Tomáš Ujfaluši must guard against complacency against a Latvia side used to hurting teams when they least expect it.
"We expect the Latvians to put plenty of men behind the ball," warned Nedved. On the other hand, Starkovs will have none of the 'just happy to be here' vibe expressed by many compatriots. "I will be content only if we pick up points," he emphasised before the game. Realistically, though, a point from a draw would be a triumph for a team that few expected to be sharing in the Portuguese party
Czech Republic (possible):
Cech; Jankulovski, Ujfaluši, Bolf, Grygera; Nedved, Rosický, Galásek, Poborský; Koller, Baroš.
Kolinko; Zirnis, Stepanovs, Zemlinskis, Blagonadezdins; Bleidelis, Astafjevs; Rubins, Laizans; Verpakovskis, Prohorenkovs.