By Mark Robinson
Goals should hopefully be guaranteed this evening as Holland face Latvia in their final group match of Euro 2004 Group D. Both sides need a victory in Braga tonight to have any chance of setting up a quarter-final clash with Sweden on Saturday evening.
If Germany fail to beat the impressive Czech Republic side in the other game in Lisbon this evening, then either the Dutch or Latvians can avoid elimination by taking all three points at the Estadio Municipal.
The expectation levels of their fans will see the pressure being piled on the Dutch squad, for whom qualification is seen as a minimum requirement. On the other hand, the Latvians will be delighted to enter the final group game with a chance of progress, and qualification tonight from the so-called ‘group of death’ will be seen as arguably the biggest shock in the history of the competition.
Holland coach Dick Advocaat is likely to reshuffle his defence this evening, with John Heitinga’s red card in the 3-2 defeat against the Czechs on Saturday ruling him out through suspension. Wilfred Bouma may also be absent with an achilles injury.
Michael Reiziger, who is a free agent this summer like many of the Dutch squad, is likely to take Heitinga’s place at right back, while Advocaat is almost certain to call upon the services of the veteran Frank de Boer in place of Bouma at centre half. If selected, De Boer will win his 111th cap for the Orangemen – only Marcel Desailly of France has more experience at this tournament.
Aside from those enforced changes, Advocaat is likely to stick with the team and formation from Saturday’s defeat. Holland were impressive in taking a 2-0 lead, only to be stunned by a rousing Czech comeback in the final quarter of the match. The Dutch press have castigated Advocaat since the opening 1-1 draw with Germany, where the Dutch looked anything but their best.
The pressure intensified after an improved performance against the Czechs yielded no points, with most of the media blaming Advocaat’s defensive substitutions for the defeat. The first one, the withdrawal of Arjen Robben for Paul Bosvelt, caused the most consternation. Robben had created both Dutch goals and was causing the Czechs a host of problems on the left side of midfield.
“As far as it will be possible, the same team that started against the Czechs will play against Latvia,” the under-fire former Rangers manager told a press conference on Sunday.
“We have to go on in the way we played against the Czechs. We have to try and continue like that.”
“I do not fear that this will be my last match in charge of the squad,” Advocaat then claimed, after fielding countless questions about his future.
“I do not fear anything. We have left the match against the Czech Republic behind us and we are totally focussed on Latvia.”
The Dutch coaching staff will be keen to keep their players focussed on their own performance, despite the knowledge that qualification is out of their hands. They have also urged the players to ignore the negativity from the press and make sure they produce the performance they are capable of.
“We have put ourselves in this position so now we have to get out of it,” assistant manager Willem van Hanegem explained on Monday as he filled in for Advocaat at the press gathering.
“We need to win so we are not going to think too much about Germany’s result. It would be strange if we are not ready to play against Latvia. It is our last chance and the players know how important it is that we take it.”
Van Hanegem also leapt to the defence of his manager, as he too was asked to explain the substitutions against the Czechs. The assistant coach admitted he was surprised at the confusion that Robben’s withdrawal seemed to cause.
“The fact that we replaced one 19 year-old should not confuse a whole team of experienced internationals,” he said in a veiled attack at the senior members of the squad.
“I can’t really understand that at all. [Clarence] Seedorf was busier with his own team-mates than with his opponents at one stage. That really did surprise me.”
The Dutch seemed resigned to the fact that the Czechs will not field their strongest team against Germany tonight, but refused to blame Czech coach Karel Bruckner.
“If the Czechs give their best players a rest then it is our own fault,” reflected Advocaat.
“We would probably do the same if we were in the same position,” he added.
Holland midfielder Edgar Davids, who at 31 could be playing in his last major tournament, concurred with his coach.
“We have to hope that the young Czech substitutes have the will and the power to prove themselves against the Germans,” the former Juventus and Barcelona star said.
“That is what we hope for and, of course, to win our own match – that is imperative.”
Euro 2004 has long been identified by the Dutch media as the last chance saloon for many of the senior members of the squad. Davids, De Boer and skipper Philip Cocu are 31, 35 and 33 respectively, and along with several others they will be hoping that tonight’s match will not be their international swansong.
“Yes, for some players it may be their last tournament, but for others it is their first of many. It will be a disappointment for all of us – both younger and older – if we do not qualify for the next stage,” Holland captain Cocu remarked.
The mood is a positive one in the Latvian camp ahead of tonight’s match, and the Latvian players can enter the game knowing that Saturday’s 0-0 draw with Germany has already made them national heroes at home, regardless of the result this evening. Preparations have been free from the pressures that face the Dutch, and the Latvians even had time to give their press corps a 6-2 beating in a light-hearted friendly match on Sunday afternoon.
Praise for Latvia and their performances so far has been forthcoming from all countries represented at the finals, and coach Alexander Starkovs is confident that his players can achieve the unthinkable this evening by defeating the mighty Dutch and progressing into the knockout stages.
“We have played two excellent games and received praise from the press, and this makes me very proud,” he revealed yesterday.
“The last match is the most important and we must do all we can to live up to our earlier promise. I believe that this will be the last game in the group for us, but not in Portugal.”
“We must concentrate on our own game-plan and not focus on their star players, otherwise we have no chance of succeeding tonight,” he continued.
Latvia will start unchanged from Saturday’s 0-0 draw provided, as expected, defensive midfielder Valantins Lobanovs recovers from a muscle injury. Lobanovs, who will win his 50th cap tonight if he features, has been one of Latvia’s key men thus far. Along with former Arsenal defender Igors Stepanovs and striker Maris Verpakovskis, Lobanovs will be one of the Latvian players that will worry the Dutch this evening.
Dynamo Kiev striker Verpakovskis has looked one of the tournament’s most dangerous forwards, despite a lack of service and support. It was his goal that gave Latvia the lead in the eventual 2-1 defeat by the Czechs, and he will consider himself unlucky not to have been awarded a penalty in the second half of the Germany match.
His pace and technical ability will be crucial to the Latvian counter-attacking tactics tonight. Southampton’s Marian Pahars, who has experience of playing against some of the Dutch team in the English Premiership, will probably start on the bench again due to his lack of match fitness, but may be called upon by his coach to make an impact.
“If I had said 10 days ago that now I’d be talking about qualifying for the quarter-finals it would have seemed like a joke,” Starkovs insisted yesterday.
“But our team’s confidence is growing with every match and we have a realistic chance to make it.”
Defender Mihails Zemlinskis claimed the Latvian players were just as bullish as their coach, and that his team-mates were looking forward to the challenge ahead.
“We’ve lost one match, drawn one and now a victory will give us the full set of results and hopefully a quarter-final place,” he enthused.
“We surprised everyone by getting here in the first place, and now we will try and produce something magical. As players we are confident.”
Holland: Van der Sar; Reiziger, Stam, de Boer, Van Bronkhorst; Seedorf, Cocu, Davids; Van der Meyde, Van Nistelrooy, Robben
Latvia: Kolinko; Isakovs, Stepanovs, Zemlinskis, Blagonadezdins; Bledielis, Lobanovs, Astajevs, Rubins; Prohorenkovs, Verpakovskis
Referee: Kim Milton Nielsen (Den)