After a recent poll found that football had overtaken ice hockey and basketball to become Latvia's most popular sport, the new Virslīga season promise to be a real crowd-pleaser.
While SK Liepājas Metalurgs, FK Ventspils and Skonto FC share top billing, Skonto have grabbed the pre-season headlines with Latvia coach Aleksandrs Starkovs replacing Paul Ashworth as boss in January. Hugely popular for leading the national team to UEFA EURO 2004, his presence will add star quality to the Virslīga as well as bolstering Skonto's chances.
"Skonto are my home team," said Starkovs, who guided Skonto to 12 successive titles between 1993 and 2004. Given that the club have failed to win meaningful silverware since his post-EURO departure for FC Spartak Moskva – and finished third last term – the 54-year-old admits his new assignment "will be tough". "We have experienced players but most of the team are making their first steps. I like their desire to improve and I'm ready to help them," he said.
Champions last year, Liepājas Metalurgs have kept the majority of their squad, including 2009's 30-goal striker Kristaps Grebis, while also recruiting from abroad. Coach Rüdiger Abramczik said: "We are looking to defend our title and perform well in the UEFA Champions league. That is a challenge, but we have never been afraid of facing difficulties."
Ventspils, title winners in 2006, 2007 and 2008 and runners-up last time around, broke new ground in the autumn by becoming the first Latvian club to play in the UEFA Europa League group stage. However, coach Nunzio Zavattieri has had a major clear-out since, with 80% of his squad changing. "We have a very young team," he told UEFA.com. "My duty is to help these talents develop. First place is our main goal, and we are capable of achieving it."
No other sides look capable of denying the big three, although promoted FK Jelgava epitomise the willingness of the nation's smaller clubs. "It is 15 years since we were in the top flight," said coach Dainis Kazakevich. "We are back and I'm sure will keep our place." Their survival mission should be one of many intriguing sub-plots as the action gets under way on Saturday.
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