Latvia qualified for a major international football tournament for the first time as goals from Jurijs Laizans and Maris Verpakovskis enabled the visitors to come from two goals down to draw 2-2 with Turkey in Istanbul, progressing to the finals of UEFA EURO 2004™ 3-2 on aggregate.
Disciplined and determined
Strikes from Ilhan Mansiz and Hakan Sükür had seemed to put Senol Günes's side on their way to Portugal, but the home team rarely looked comfortable against determined and disciplined opponents, and never came close to scoring the two goals they needed in the closing stages.
The visitors came to defend a 1-0 lead from the first leg in Riga, given to them by Verpakovskis's 29th-minute goal, and welcomed back key defenders Dzintars Zirnis and Mihails Zemlinskis after suspension, although Olegs Blagonadezdins and Valentins Lobanovs were missing through injury and suspension respectively. They were further boosted by the inclusion of Marians Pahars, a year after his last competitive match, on the substitute's bench.
In contrast, the home side were depleted by suspensions, with first-choice goalkeeper Rüstü Reçber and defenders Fatih Akyel and Emre Asik all sidelined. Ömer Çatkiç deputised for Rüstü, with Ümit Davala and Deniz Barisalso coming into the back-line, while Hakan Sükür was recalled up front.
The home side began the game in positive fashion, pressing the visitors back as they sought an early goal. Tümer Metin twice had low shots easily saved by goalkeeper Aleksandrs Kolinko, but either side of his efforts, the home side took the lead in the 20th minute. Nihat Kahveci regained possession on the left of the Latvian penalty area before turning and hitting a cross towards Ilhan, whose unstoppable left-foot volley from the edge of the area gave Kolinko no chance.
Latvia bounce back
Buoyed by the goal, the home side pressed forward, but it was Latvia who looked the more likely scorers in the remainder of the second half. Four minutes after Ilhan's strike, Laizans linked well with Verpakovskis and his prodded effort from the edge of the area forced a sprawling Omer to turn the ball behind. Andrejs Rubins also came close, running from inside his own half before seeing his shot deflected behind.
The second half started in similar fashion to the first, with Turkey seeing more of the ball but struggling to break down a stubborn and well-organised Latvian defence, although Nihat sliced a shot high over the crossbar from 25 metres.
As in the first half, Latvia weathered the early storm and gradually came more into the match, as first Laizans then Rubins both shot wide. Just as it seemed the visitors were beginning to threaten, however, Turkey made it 2-0. A fine crossfield pass found Gökdeniz Karadeniz and the substitute broke down the right before crossing low for Hakan Sükür to turn into the net.
The Turkish celebrations had not died down when Latvia drew level on aggregate but, crucially, ahead on away goals. The visitors won a free-kick down the left and Laizans swung the ball in low. A succession of attackers missed the ball and, unsighted, Omer was unable to prevent it from nestling in the corner of the net.
The home side nearly responded immediately, as Hakan Sükür's thumping shot hit the crossbar, but 12 minutes from time their hopes suffered what proved to be a critical blow. A long ball over the top of the defence set Verpakovskis clear, and the striker held off Bülent to lift the ball over Omer and cap an extraordinary night for the away side.