Group 4: Aleksandrs Starkovs could lead Latvia to the play-offs with a win against Sweden.
By Mikhail Korolev & Pavle Gognidze
Latvia was hardly a major footballing nation at the start of the UEFA EURO 2004™ campaign. However, with their final qualifying game against Group 4 winners Sweden looming, Aleksandrs Starkovs' side can make history in Stockholm by winning a play-off place for the first time.
Latvia need a win to be sure of second place, but depending on the result of Saturday's other game between Hungary and Poland, a draw or even a defeat could still see celebrations in the small Baltic state.
The excitement in Latvia has been overwhelming, but the team are trying to remain calm, as Starkovs told uefa.com: "I don't have time to think about how to describe this atmosphere we have now. We have been concentrating on doing our job all campaign, and, looking at the table, we are doing our job well."
Doing their job well in Stockholm will be all the more difficult for Latvia as three of their key players - Marians Pahars of Southampton FC, Juris Laizans of PFC CSKA Moskva and Andrejs Prohorenkovs of Maccabi Tel-Aviv FC - are not available. However, Starkovs insisted that nerves were not a problem.
"We do not have a tense atmosphere in the team," he said. "We have been able to select all the players we wanted, aside from Laizans, Pahars and Prohorenkovs. We now must concentrate on those who are fit to play - they need to come out, be confident and get a bit of luck."
Starkovs was under no illusions as to the task facing his side - "Sweden are overwhelming favourites in this match," he said - and asked only that they did their very best. "I will ask my players to do their utmost," he said. "It is common that a sportsman can't deliver at such critical moments, but I want to see everyone giving it all they have - and then, regardless of the result, they will only deserve praise.
"It is pivotal that the players do not feel the pressure of this game. We need cool-tempered and confident people on the pitch on 11 October. So far, everyone is calm and confident. We're still in contention, we made our mistakes and we've corrected them."
No easy ride
With Hungary and Poland both needing Sweden to get a result against Latvia, Starkovs was sure that Lars Lagerbäck and Tommy Söderberg's side would not be taking it easy - even though the Swedes are already certain of a place in Portugal.
"They have a lot of reasons to want to beat us," said Starkovs. "Firstly, the national team coefficient, which will decide which pot they're in for the next qualifying campaign. I don't think anyone in Sweden fancies playing Spain or Italy. They need points. But we need them more."
Should they slip up, Hungary and Poland would both have the chance to sneak their way into the play-offs following their meeting in Budapest. Hungary, two points adrift of Latvia, would need a win coupled with a draw or a defeat for the Baltic side, to reach the play-offs.
Pawel Janas's fourth-placed Poland, meanwhile, must win in Hungary and hope that Latvia lose in Stockholm in order to have any hope of a place in the play-offs. Both sides, however, know that a draw would allow Starkovs' men to progress regardless of their result on Saturday.