By Mihails Korolevs
The mood in the FC Skonto camp for the past few days has been bleak following the Latvian champions' surprise early exit in the first qualifying round of the UEFA Champions League.
Trailing 2-0 from the first leg against Sliema Wanderers FC, Skonto seemed set for a meeting with Danish side FC København as they entered injury time in the second leg holding a 3-0 advantage. However, a 92nd-minute strike from Sliema's Joe Brincat levelled the tie at 3-3 on aggregate and the Maltese side progressed on away goals.
The defeat meant that Skonto had been eliminated from the Champions League at the first hurdle for the first time since 1995/96. Having previously been eliminated by big names like Internazionale FC, FC Barcelona and Chelsea FC, a defeat to such relative minnows as the champions of Malta leaves Skonto coach Aleksandrs Starkovs under increased scrutiny.
Key players sold
However, Starkovs can reasonably claim mitigating circumstances. Skonto, who have won 12 consecutive Virsliga titles, have recently sold a number of key players, notably Georgian international midfield player Alexander Rekhviashvili and Latvian internationals Olegs Blagonadezdins and Mihails Miholaps.
Kolesnicenko joins exodus
Those three, together with Mantas Samusevas and Zurab Menteshashvili all moved to the Russian Premier League and playmaker Vladimirs Kolesnicenko joined another Russian club, FC Torpedo-Metallurg Moskva, only days before the first game with Sliema.
There were no signings of note to offset the departures, with two 17-year-olds, Igors Semjonovs and Kristaps Blanks, expected to fill the void. However, club president Guntis Indriksons remained philosophical about the situation.
"It is of course clear that the outcome [of the Sliema tie] is a failure," he said. "We had to beat Sliema, but sport is sport. Playing a Maltese side offered more proof that there is no weak opposition in Europe. However, my players did all they could. If we'd have had ten more minutes of play, we would have scored to erase that terrible goal from memory."
"Still, I am convinced that this early exit is not a tragedy," Indriksons continued. "I am sorry for the players. I told them not to be disappointed and to make further progress. Life is not over, and Sliema's goal was simply a lucky break. Anything can happen on a football pitch."
'Best coach in Latvia'
Indriksons refused to dwell further on the defeat, preferring instead to look to the future. "Firstly, the coach's job is secure," he said. "
I have no doubt that Starkovs is the best coach in Latvia, and his results speak for themselves. The most important thing now is to retain the title, which will allow us to play in the Champions League again and hopefully do better.
"I would also like to see the young players progress - we need to recreate the Skonto remembered by the fans, with players like Vitalijs Astafjevs, Juris Laizans and Andrejs Rubins. Then we will not lose to clubs like Sliema."
Blanks, one of the teenage newcomers to the side, said: "I am terribly disappointed about the loss to Sliema. When we led 3-0, I had no doubt that we were through. We were better throughout, and one free-kick spoiled the whole match for us. One goal has killed our European season and many months of preparation."
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