Two goals in the last 17 minutes earned the much-fancied Czech Republic a narrow win against unheralded Latvia in a pulsating UEFA EURO 2004 Group D encounter in Aveiro.
Māris Verpakovskis gave the Baltic nation a shock lead just before half-time, but striker Milan Baroš came up with a 73rd-minute leveller and substitute Marek Heinz grabbed an opportunist winner. It brought reward for ceaseless second-half pressure from Karel Brückner's side against the spirited underdogs.
Aleksandrs Starkovs placed his faith in Valentins Lobanovs in the important holding role in front of the Latvian defence, which was expecting plenty of work against the 1996 runners-up. Indeed, the early pressure came from the Czechs, and Marek Jankulovski fired a cross-shot just wide when he was put into space by Pavel Nedvěd. Goalkeeper Aleksandrs Koliņko then clawed away another teasing Nedvěd cross as Latvia were pushed back.
Latvia looked enterprising when they broke out, and an Andrejs Prohorenkovs cross from the right just evaded the diving Verpakovskis in the Czech Republic area. At the other end, Baroš volleyed past the post before Andrejs Rubins headed wide for Latvia as both sides sought the breakthrough.
Another promising period for the Czechs followed, René Bolf heading over and 32-year-old Karel Poborský skimming the crossbar from long range. Predictably Brückner's side, prompted by the cunning Nedvěd, who had a shot deflected wide as the half-hour mark approached, were seeing more of the ball. But Latvia were matching them for commitment with gutsy defending and the occasional dangerous counter.
The first half wore on with Poborský and Nedvěd having shots blocked in the area. The Czechs had dominated possession, but right on the interval Latvia went ahead. Prohorenkovs thundered clear on the left before firing in a low cross, and Verpakovskis was left free to poke the ball in from close range and give the Baltic outsiders a surprise lead.
The Czechs were stung, and came out for the second half determined to find a way back into the game and prevent a shock defeat. However, Latvia were getting bodies behind the ball to protect their unexpected advantage. It was eight minutes before the Czechs created an opportunity, Koliņko diving to save Nedvěd's deflected 20-metre drive.
Brückner brought on Heinz for right-back Zdeněk Grygera to pep up his ailing side, bringing greater attacking variety to the midfield, and Poborský almost brought the Czech Republic level with a stinging drive that flew just past the woodwork soon after. The unmarked Baroš should have equalised after the hour, when he seemed certain to score from Poborský's right-wing cross, but inexplicably missed the target with his shot.
Koliņko saved again from Baroš and Brückner brought on forward Vladimir Šmicer for Tomáš Galásek. Still Latvia clung on, Koliņko pushing aside a screaming Nedvěd volley. The Czechs poured forward, and the Latvian rearguard finally crumbled with 17 minutes left. They failed to clear in a goalmouth scramble, and Baroš was relieved to hammer the ball in from 10 metres. By now, Latvia were looking a tired side, and they succumbed again with five minutes left, Heinz volleying in to break Latvian hearts.