Latvia coach Aleksandrs Starkovs is back in club action as Skonto FC take on Rhyl FC.
By Pavle Gognidze
With their coach and a good number of their players still recovering from their exertions at UEFA EURO 2004™, Latvian champions Skonto FC could perhaps have done with a few more weeks of rest before beginning their UEFA Champions League campaign with a first qualifying round game against Rhyl FC.
A magnificent summer saw several of Skonto's finest leave the Virsliga behind to compete with Europe's élite in Portugal. However, the team who have won the last 13 Latvian titles have perhaps been feeling a little jaded since their return, with fears that they may have temporarily lost some of their hunger.
Getting that passion back is one of coach Aleksandrs Starkovs' main jobs as Skonto's domestic and European campaign resumes. "After EURO 2004™, footballers and coaches need a vacation for a month at least," he told uefa.com. "But we have not had a chance to rest and some of the national team players at Skonto lack that energy and spark."
There was evidence of that as Skonto lost 3-1 to their main title rivals FHK Liepajas Metalurgs at the weekend. However, Starkovs refused to make a drama out of the result, saying: "Metalurgs won on merit, but I think that this will be a good shake-up for the players before the Rhyl match.
Skonto rarely lose twice in a row."
And while questions may have been asked of his side's level of perormance in the last few days, there is absolutely no doubt that Starkovs still has his competitive edge. "Do I still have it? You know better than to ask," he said. "I would like to beat the Welsh very much so there's still some spark left!"
First-time European campaigners Rhyl are certainly an unknown quantity for Skonto. However, after watching his side get knocked out of the competition by Malta's Sliema Wanderers FC last season, Starkovs knows better than to underestimate the part-timers from the Welsh seaside.
"I do not have a video tape of their games, only general information about them, he said. "We are preparing seriously knowing that the outcome of this game will be dependent on what Skonto do, rather than what Rhyl do. It would be disrespectful to say that we need to win this game in the first leg, but if that happens I will be happy. To get a big victory is ideal in the Riga leg."
However, while experience would seem to favour Skonto, a major injury crisis could yet work in Rhyl's favour. With international midfield player Vladimirs Kolesnicenko having returned to FC Moskva after his loan spell expired and Levan Korgalidze and Aaron Nguimbat recovering from injuries, the Latvians are struggling.
"We simply don't have enough healthy players at the moment," said Starkovs. "In the last game I only had four people on the bench and I am worried I will have to do the same against Rhyl. I will have to spend a lot of time thinking about how to rebuild the starting lineup."
Certainly, Skonto could have used a few more weeks to settle their squad and rest some tired limbs. But as Rhyl prepare to tackle a side featuring some of the team which helped tame Germany at EURO 2004™, the Welshmen will be happy to accept all the good luck they can get.