Latvia 0-0 Sweden
Latvia kicked off their EURO 2004™ campaign with a creditable draw against Group 4 favourites Sweden in Riga.
But the Latvians had to survive a Swedish onslaught at the start and finish of the second half to take a point from their Baltic rivals. First, Marcus Allbäck curled a free-kick over the wall but centimetres wide of the post. Then the Aston Villa FC striker was involved in another near miss as the Swedes looked to build on their impressive form from the FIFA World Cup.
Allbäck was again denied in the last five minutes, as his goal-bound effort was blocked by the late challenge of Mihails Zemlinskis. Moments before, Kim Källström had seen his clever lob over home goalkeeper Aleksandrs Kolinko cleared off the line.
Ref rules against Latvia
However, it was the hosts who came closest to breaking the deadlock on 86 minutes, when Maris Verpakovskis was unlucky to have his effort ruled out by the referee. Andrejs Rubins's slide-rule pass put Andrejs Stolcers through on goal, and after Magnus Hedman had parried the Fulham FC forward's shot, Verpakovskis was on hand to slot in the rebound.
Verpakovskis at one end and Källström at the other then spurned the opportunities to claim maximum points when put clean through against the opposition goalkeepers.
Life after Larsson
According to Sweden's joint coach, Lars Lagerbäck, the draw was the right result. "I am not disappointed about the draw, and I am not surprised by the result. We played OK in defence, but could not create much going forwards. We are missing Henrik Larsson in attack - and will be happy to welcome him back if he ever decides to rejoin the squad," said Lagerbäck of the Celtic FC frontman who retired from the national team after the World Cup.
Kolinko to the rescue
Sweden had been untroubled in a first half notable only for Kolinko's save from Pontus Farnerud's first-time strike on 13 minutes. With the visitors well-organised in defence, Latvia had been limited to long-range attempts from Juris Laizans, Maris Pahars and Imants Bleidelis.
But, just as Sweden were invigorated by the half-time break, so too were the hosts. Vitalijs Astafjevs forced a smart save from Hedman from a Rubins centre, before Aleksandrs Isakovs drifted a shot narrowly wide.
'A real achievement'
The Latvian coach, Aleksandrs Starkovs, said: "We started well and it is a real achievement for us to hold Sweden. They were the better team in the first half, but in the second half I think we looked better. I must give credit to Marian Pahars and Igors Stepanovs, who both had great games for us."