By Pavle Gognidze & Márton Dinnyés
With Group 4 proving to be perhaps the most competitive UEFA EURO 2004™ qualifying section of all there is a huge amount at stake in all the remaining games, and, as they prepare to face Hungary tonight, Latvia are hoping that their route to Portugal does not end in Riga.
Latvia coach Aleksandrs Starkovs was disappointed to see his side go down 2-0 at home against Poland on Saturday, but he has not given up hope of his team reaching the finals. "We will be looking to qualify by beating both Hungary and Sweden in the remaining games," he said.
The key for Latvia will be to put recent disappointments behind them, not least that defeat against Poland. "Losing to Poland was extremely disappointing," defender Valentins Lobanevs told uefa.com. "However, we are determined to show the home fans that we can win games."
Latvia are not helped by absence of some key players. Marians Pahars is still recuperating after a long-term injury, Juris Laizans will miss the game after a red card against Poland, while Andrejs Rubins and Andrejs Prohorenkovs are both doubtful.
'Nothing to lose'
"We still have hopes of qualifying," defender Olegs Blagonadezdins said. "
We have nothing to lose now - we lost twice in a row anyway. We will be looking for revenge against Hungary on Wednesday. If we lose again, the fans will not remember that we were leading the group at one stage."
Hungary in second
Having beaten their hosts 3-1 in Budapest, Hungary know a second win against Latvia could be the key to qualifying for the finals. "I said when I saw the draw in Portugal last year that we had to beat Latvia twice," said Hungary coach Imre Gellei. "The situation is still the same."
Three points adrift of leaders Sweden, back-to-back wins against Latvia and Poland would guarantee at least a play-off place for Hungary, and should the Swedes capitulate entirely in their final games - away against Poland and at home against Latvia - Gellei's men could even win the group.
Hungary will be without Omonia AC defender Gábor Korolovszky in Riga after he suffered a shoulder injury in training, but with strikers Miklós Fehér and Imre Szabics in form and playmaker Zoltán Gera having scored four goals in two qualifying games as a substitute, Gellei's men are in good shape.
The key now is not to lose it. "We have performed and worked very hard to keep our chances alive until now," said Gellei. "
I hope that we won't be like a gypsy music group that plays well in the small jamborees but is never invited to the wedding party."
Sweden on top
Wednesday's other game between Poland and Sweden will be followed with interest from Riga. A win for the Swedes would clinch first place as they have a superior head-to-head record against Hungary, but anything other than victory could leave the way open for Hungary, Poland and Latvia.
Buoyed by their win against Latvia, and still smarting from a 3-0 defeat against Sweden in Stockholm, Pawel Janas's side will know that a win here, followed by three points from the trip to Hungary on 11 October, could see them steal at least a play-off spot.
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