Latvia sweating on Pahars' fitness

Latvia will wait until just before kick-off before deciding whether to field Southampton striker Marian Pahars against the Czech Republic in their Euro 2004 opener on today.

Latvia will wait until just before kick-off before deciding whether to field Southampton striker Marian Pahars against the Czech Republic in their Euro 2004 opener on today.

Pahars has been struggling with a thigh injury since before coach Aleksandrs Starkovs named his 23-man squad to travel to Portugal.

Starkovs is keen to see the forward resume the partnership with Maris Verpakovskis that proved so successful in qualifying.

“Pahars is still preparing to play in the match,” said Starkovs.

“Of course it is naïve to think he will be normal again after three weeks but we want to use him if we can.”

Latvia are by far the least expected qualifiers and, uniquely among the 16 finalists, are debutants in a major tournament.

Defender Mihails Zemlinskis admits that the Czechs will be tough opponents for the Baltic minnows.

“Unfortunately I am a defender so I have all the attacking players to worry about,” said Zemlinskis, one of seven Skonto Riga players in the squad.

“There is (Jan) Koller, (Pavel) Nedved and (Tomas) Rosicky – we will have our hands full.”

Just 12 months ago, Latvia looked unlikely finalists but they grabbed their unexpected place in the tournament by winning in Sweden in their last match to seal second place in the pool before eclipsing World Cup semi-finalists Turkey in a two-legged play-off.

Starkovs makes no bones about the size of the achievement for the tiny nation which has a population of 3.3million, of which a third are ethnic Russians who moved to Latvia during the days when it was part of the Soviet Union.

“Now the whole country is behind us,” said Starkovs. “In Latvia this will be the main event of the year.

“I am not just talking about football but in the whole of life.”

Zemlinskis admits that the task is a stiff one for the tournament outsiders who have been drawn in what is arguably the “group of death” alongside the Czechs, Holland and Germany.

“This is a great event,” said Zemlinskis. “Finally tomorrow we will get everything we have worked for – there is a wonderful atmosphere here in Portugal and also back at home and that will help us to prepare to play a very good team.”

Starkovs insists his team never look beyond the next match – and that is what he believes has been instrumental in the success of the fledgling nation.

“Just two years ago we did not even think about this – only as a joke if we did,” said Starkovs.

“But during the qualification tournament we got our chance and we got a little bit better with every game. During these games the players have seen their skills improve.

“Even when we went to play in Turkey we never said to ourselves ‘look, we can qualify’,” said Starkovs.

“We never said ‘we want to qualify’ – we just said ‘let’s go and win the game’.”

He continued: “It’s just a little bit naïve to set targets before a competition and we just must concentrate on every individual game.

“If we do that it should be just fine.”

Starkovs is also coach of Skonto Riga and admits that it is something of a change of roles when he becomes national team coach.

He said: “At home in Latvia, Skonto win everything so we are always favourites every time we play a match.

“But when it is Latvia playing we are always the underdogs which is not a comfortable position for a coach.”

Part of the Latvian delegation is Englishman Gary Johnson, manager of Yeovil, who was Starkovs predecessor – the current boss worked as Johnson’s number two.

Johnson quit in 2001 but remains on good terms with his successor and the Latvian federation.

Starkovs said: “The development of football in Latvia has been down to a number of factors.

“The coaches are good but it is mainly the players who deserve the credit.”

Euro 2004 could be a stage for many Latvians to earn a move to high profile clubs – something that Zemlinskis is well aware of.

“If you look at our media guide you will see how old I am,” said Zemlinskis, who is 34.

“So I am not expecting any great offers myself. But I am sure the rest of our 23 players will be determined to make a big impression and this is the stage for them to do it.”

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