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Germany will consolidate their chances of progress into the UEFA EURO 2004™ quarter-finals if they come away with a victory against tournament minnows Latvia when the two teams meet in a Group D encounter at the Estádio do Bessa Século XXI in Porto tonight.
The Germans opened their campaign with a heartening performance in a 1-1 draw against the Netherlands earlier this week - but woe betide coach Rudi Völler's men if they decide to underestimate the team from the Baltic, who have already demonstrated that any side that comes up against them here in Portugal must expect to work diligently to bring them to heel.
Latvia, shock qualifiers via an unlikely play-off success against 2002 FIFA World Cup bronze medallists Turkey, did enough in their opening match against the Czech Republic to dispel coach Aleksandrs Starkovs' fears that they had no right to be at the tournament. They may still not win a point in a tough group but they have already earned the respect of their rivals.
Starkovs' charges led until the last quarter of an hour against the Czech Republic, defending heroically until a late onslaught finally cracked them open in a 2-1 defeat. They fought wholeheartedly in defence, and have a front duo in Maris Verpakovskis and Andrejs Prohorenkovs that will keep the German rearguard fully occupied. Certainly Völler will have noted with interest the way that the two combined astutely for the Latvian goal against the Czechs.
'Difficult to beat'
Against the Netherlands, the Germans produced a committed and tactically accomplished display that they feel should have brought them all three points. "Every team in the world will find us difficult to beat if we play that way," said assistant coach Michael Skibbe.
The pundits can never dismiss Germany given their outstanding record as a durable tournament team over the years, latterly in reaching the World Cup final two years ago. They begin the game as favourites - but much will depend on whether they can show the same brazen commitment that kept the Czechs at bay for so long in Aveiro.
The heat could also be a factor. "Dedication, character and willpower will all be just as important as skill in the match against Latvia. Every player will face the test of playing on through the pain barrier," said Völler, whose players have been drilled with the necessity of taking in as much liquid as possible during breaks in play.
Change of tactics
Both Völler and Starkovs have intimated that they will change their tactics from their opening outings. Völler wants to field a second striker to prise open the Latvian defence. "Sometimes you have to make these changes," he explained. Fredi Bobic could be the man to take up a front-running role alongside Kevin Kuranyi in a 4-4-2 lineup. Defensive midfield player Frank Baumann is expected to make way in an otherwise unchanged team.
Starkovs will modify his lineup to counter the considerable threat posed by Bobic and Kuranyi in particular. In a 4-4-2 formation, Dzintars Zirnis may get the nod at right-back over Aleksandrs Isakovs, and Jurijs Laizans could be introduced to give the Latvians a more creative midfield option.
An interesting 90 minutes are in prospect in Porto. Germany's title credentials may be subject to a stern test by the Baltic battlers - while Latvia, with absolutely nothing to lose in their Portuguese adventure, will hope to summon the self-belief and steely resistance that has propelled them further up the European football ladder than they might dared have expect.
Latvia (possible): Kolinko; Isakovs/Zirnis, Stepanovs, Zemlinskis, Blagonadezdins; Bleidelis, Astafjevs, Lobanovs/Laizans, Rubins; Verpakovskis, Prohorenkovs.
Germany (possible): Kahn; Friedrich, Wörns, Nowotny, Lahm; Schneider, Hamann, Frings, Ballack; Bobic, Kuranyi.
Referee: M Riley (ENG)
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