By Pavle Gognidze at the Skonto stadium
Latvia recorded the most significant victory of their footballing history after defeating Turkey 1-0 in the first leg of their UEFA EURO 2004™ play-off in Riga.
Maris Verpakovskis scored the only goal in freezing conditions to ensure his side take a slender lead to Istanbul and keep their hopes of reaching a first major championship alive. A futher boost to Latvian hopes came with the sending off of Turkey defender Emre Asik and yellow cards for Rüstü Recber and Fatih Aykel, which will mean all three miss Wednesday's return leg.
Latvia coach Aleksandrs Starkovs opted for FK Ventspils defender Igor Kobalovs after being forced into changes at the back by the suspensions of Mihails Zemlinskis and Dzintars Sirnis. His opposite number Senol Günes left out Hakan Sükür in favour of a strike partnership of Ilhan Mansiz and Nihat Kahevci.
Rüstü to rescue
Latvia made the brighter start, with Andrejs Rubins forcing a rushed clearance from Turkish goalkeeper Rüstü in the opening seconds. On seven minutes, Rüstü was again called into action after Vit Rimkus set up Verpakovskis for a fierce shot. Although the FC Barcelona man made the save, the power of the drive nearly sent the ball over the line before a last-ditch clearance.
Despite the strength of their opponents, Latvia were in confident mood and were looking the more likely to break the deadlock. The Latvian breakthrough finally came on 29 minutes when Verpakovskis struck his fourth goal in three internationals. He latched on to a long pass, turned brilliantly inside Emre Asik and applied a great finish to send the ball beyond Rüstü and into the net.
The goal sent the Skonto stadium in Riga wild, with the Turkish side struggling to find their form in freezing conditions. Meanwhile, Latvia looked likely to score a second with Rubins going close on a counterattack while Verpakovskis's first touch let him down after good work by Valentins Lobanovs, who will also miss the return after picking up a yellow card tonight.
There was another scare for Turkey as Fatih Aykel's backpass nearly eluded Rüstü in the dying seconds of the first half but the visitors survived. They then had their first real chance of the match but Kolinko comfortably saved Tugay's low shot.
Chance to equalise
It was a similar story in the opening stages of the second half but Turkey slowly began to create more openings. On 54 minutes, Emre Asik had a chance to equalise from four metres after a corner but his shot was deflected wide. For Latvia, Imants Bleidelis was growing in stature and just before the hour mark shot narrowly over the bar.
Nihat finally created an opening in the 68th minute but his shot was weak and wide. A minute later it was Emre Belözoglu who had a go, but Aleksandrs Kolinko held his powerful shot. However, Turkey's fortunes were to take a turn for the worse when Emre Asik was shown a red card for elbowing Rimkus.
The sending off had a major impact on Turkish hopes, with Latvia content to hit their visitors on the counterattack. Verpakovskis, the Skonto FC striker, had more chances to score again while Turkey were left to hold their heads in their hands after Emre Belözoglu saw his diving header smash against the post. Verpakovskis was to remain the hero of the hour and he was given a standing ovation after being substituted at the death.
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