By Mihail Korolev
Not so long ago, FC Skonto striker Maris Verpakovskis was little more than a stand-in for Marians Pahars in the Latvian national team. However, with two goals in a UEFA EURO 2004™ qualifying win against Hungary, he has stepped out of Pahars' shadow.
The 3-1 win at the Skonto stadium last Wednesday erased the memory of a 2-0 home defeat against Poland in their previous qualifier and revitalised Latvia's play-off hopes. In the Latvian press, the result that restored the country to second place in Group 4 was greeted as Verpakovskis's triumph.
Hungary coach Imre Gellei was not inclined to disagree. "He was a problem for us in Budapest, scoring a goal, and his play in Riga decided the game in favour of the hosts," said Gellei ruefully. "I did warn my players to pay close attention to Verpakovskis."
Clearly, that attention was not close enough, although Verpakovskis was keen to play his achievements down. "I don't think the game against Hungary was the best in my career," he told uefa.com. "It was certainly the luckiest - you can't score twice if you have no luck."
Luck has not been a major feature of Verpakovskis's international career. Given a first call-up by coach Revaz Dzodzuashvili while playing for FHK Liepajas Metalurgs in 1999, he scored on his debut in a sensational 2-1 win in Greece, but was overlooked by Dzodzuashvili's successor, Gary Johnson.
It was not until the arrival of Aleksandrs Starkovs, who coached Verpakovskis after his move to FC Skonto, that he became a regular part of the squad, taking his tally to 24 international games and seven goals.
His first goal against Hungary may well have been the most memorable of all, as he charged forward and took on three defenders before scoring. "It was spontaneous," he said. "
My team-mates did not help me, and it was the best help I could get. I was certainly surprised to have scored. When the ball hit the net I thought. 'Have I really scored a goal?'" The euphoric reaction from the crowd quickly confirmed that he had.
Such displays should see the big European leagues calling for Verpakovskis, who nearly joined Premiership side Wolverhampton Wanderers FC at the start of this season. Certainly he fancies his chances in England, saying: "I believe I could make a certain impact in the Premiership."
In the meantime, Latvia are his No1 priority, and with Pahars out with a long-term injury, the pressure is on Verpakovskis. "I am trying not to think about it," he said. "It is more important to come out and do what the coach tells you to help the national team."
The best help he could give them would be a goal in their final game against group winners Sweden in Stockholm, where Latvia need a win to make certain of second place. A draw or a defeat might be enough to give Latvia their play-off debut, but Verpakovskis is thinking big.
It will be a tough game, but we're only thinking about victory," he said. "I even dreamt about the game a couple of days ago. I will not tell you what the score was, it will ward off the good luck!"
Dream come true
Verpakovskis scored against Sweden in a goalless draw early in the campaign but his goal was disallowed for offside. If he can hit the target legitimately in Stockholm, it will be a dream come true for the whole of Latvia.
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