By Eugene Ravdin
Latvia coach Aleksandrs Starkovs will not be short of options when he picks his team for Wednesday's friendly international against Iceland in Riga.
Starkovs has 26 players available for the side's last warm-up match before their UEFA EURO 2004™ preparations begin in earnest. "This is our last game before our pre-Portugal training camp, which is why we have selected so many players," he said.
The subtext is that this is a chance to nail a place in the squad that will do battle with the Czech Republic, Germany and the Netherlands in Group D this summer. "All of them have a real chance to earn a trip to Portugal," the coach continued. "We could yet find someone else before the tournament starts."
Up for grabs
Certainly, Starkovs has yet to pencil in all the names for the defensive, midfield and attacking positions in the 23-man party that he will announce on 2 June.
For one, there is a goalkeeping vacancy to fill alongside FC Rostov's Aleksandrs Kolinko and Andrejs Piedels of Skonto FC. "We are looking at three candidates," explained Starkovs. "They are Andris Vanins, who is short of first-team football at FC Moskva; Aleksejs Krucs, who has not looked too sound recently [for FHK Liepajas Metalurgs]; and Andrejs Pavlovs [Skonto]."
Another player with a point to prove is Mihails Zemlinskis. The 34-year-old central defender has recovered from serious knee surgery but is yet to play for his club side, Skonto, this season. "He will probably be included in the squad," Starkovs said. "And if there is an opportunity, I will give him a game [against Iceland]. He's eager to play, he wants to keep up with Vitalis Astafjevs' record of caps." Zemlinskis has 92 caps to Astafjevs' 100.
In midfield, the Viborg FF right winger Imants Bleidelis should have an opportunity to impress despite a lingering thigh injury, the same problem which has claimed a victim in Metalurgs defender Dzintars Zirnis
Up front, FC Dynamo Kyiv's Maris Verpakovskis and Andrejs Prohorenkovs of Maccabi Tel-Aviv FC should get the nod ahead of the seven other strikers in the squad. Andrejs Stolcers, out of favour at Fulham FC, and the uncapped Metalurgs man Kristaps Grebis may also feature.
'Do all we can'
Starkovs at least expects Iceland to provide an examination of his EURO 2004™ hopefuls. The teams' last meeting resulted in a 4-1 home win for Wednesday's visitors in 1998. The coach said: "Iceland are quite a strong side that play athletic football. Many of their players are in strong leagues and we cannot underestimate them - we have already done that once. It is a big honour to play for your country and we have to do all we can to get the best result."
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