Latvia picked up their second win in UEFA EURO 2008™ qualifying Group F as Chris Baird's own goal proved a real blow to Northern Ireland's hopes of reaching a first final tournament in 22 years.
Although the visitors – second in the group at kick-off – were dominant, they could find no way through and an Imants Bleidelis cross forced Baird into his decisive error early in the second half. While Latvia are a long way from matching their feat of getting to the 2004 finals, Aleksandrs Starkovs' side are at least off the bottom of the group while Northern Ireland will try to win in Iceland on Wednesday.
Nigel Worthington's men made a bright start but Latvia did well to keep them at bay. On 26 minutes, Keith Gillespie forced a save from Andris Vanins and the goalkeeper then denied the leading scorer in qualifying, David Healy. The Fulham FC striker had taken his Group F total to eleven goals in the 3-1 victory over Liechtenstein that launched the reign of new manager Worthington last month. Healy came close again just before the break.
Kyle Lafferty threatened from distance early in the second half, yet it was Latvia who broke the deadlock. Moving forward on the counterattack, the home team worked the ball to Bleidelis and his low cross from the right was inadvertently turned into his own net by Baird as he attempted to cut it out at the far post. Now the visitors turned the pressure up a notch but Latvia were defending in numbers and held out thanks to Vanins's superb last-minute reflex save from a Jonny Evans far-post header. Latvia will face another test of resolve in Spain on Wednesday.