The miracle man of Metalurgs

Skonto FC's 14-year reign over Latvian football ended at the weekend as FHK Liepajas Metalurgs claimed the first title in their history.

Mission impossible
Wresting the crown from the Riga side had long looked like mission impossible for the Virsliga's other teams, but having famously led FK Žalgiris Vilnius to third place in the Soviet league in 1987, nothing is impossible for Metalurgs coach Benjaminas Zelkevicius.

'Big Ben'
'Big Ben' has worked wonders since taking the helm in 2004, and deserved the celebrations that greeted his side's decisive 5-1 win at FK Ventspils on 1 October that sealed the championship. "I am just so happy," said the Lithuanian coach after the match.

Emotional finale
Words can barely encompass the emotions of his two seasons in charge. Last term, Metalurgs appeared to have the title wrapped up before Genadijs Solonicins missed a last-minute penalty in the penultimate game of the season against Skonto to hand a 3-2 victory - and decisive advantage - to the Riga club.

Rebuilding process
However, that crushing blow did not dent Zelkevicius's confidence, and he has gone on to claim the 2005 crown in style. "I am a 'fundamentals' coach," he explained. "I need to get to the bottom of things, make my own conclusions, and then the results come.

Local talent
"When I took charge of Metalurgs, I could have signed experienced players and won the championship at the first attempt, but I dismissed this idea," he added. "I wanted young players from Liepaja to earn the right to be called the best in Latvia. That gives me as much professional satisfaction as winning."

Patient president
Youth development is no quick fix, and Zelkevicius was lucky to have a patient club president in Sergejs Zaharjins. "If not for Zaharjins, Metalurgs would never have succeeded," said the coach. "For me, Zaharjins is man of the year, at least in the city of Liepaja."

International stars
With the title won, thoughts are now turning to the qualifying stages of next season's UEFA Champions League. With three established internationals in Dzintars Zirnis, Solonicins and Deniss Ivanovs, and a rising star in defender Antons Jemelins, Zelkevicius's men are ready for a bigger challenge.

Next assignement
However, until that competition starts next summer, Metalurgs have a few months to bask in their glory. And having proved that Skonto are not unbeatable in Latvia, maybe they can reach the group stage in 2006/07. After all, with Zelkevicius in charge, nothing is impossible.