Two goals in the last 20 minutes from Milan Baros and substitute Marek Heinz, enabled the Czech Republic to come from behind to beat unfancied Latvia 2-1 in Aveiro.
Latvia, the 500-1 outsiders to win Euro 2004, had good reason to feel aggrieved after a battling performance which left the Czechs, a team many observers have tipped to win Euro 2004, looking an ordinary outfit.
Latvia appearing at their first major finals, began the game with limited ambition, appearing content to frustrate the Czechs and defend in numbers. For their part, the Czech Republic looked for inspiration to European Footballer of the Year Pavel Nedved and the Juventus midfielder was his usual busy self, prompting from just behind the front two of Jan Koller and Milan Baros.
The first chance of the match fell to Baros after a neat lay-off from strike partner Jan Koller, but the Liverpool striker screwed his shot wide.
It didn’t take long for the Czechs to find their rythmn and they could have gone ahead on nine minutes when Jankulovski, received well-angled pass from Nedved, burst into the penalty area only to place his shot the wrong side of the post.
On 12 minutes a flowing move involving Baros, Poborsky and Nedved almost led to the opening goal but Nedved’s cross just eluded the unmarked Koller.
Kolinko produced an acrobatic save to deny an 18-yard effort from Rosicky as Latvia absorbed repeated Czech attacks.
With the game being played almost exclusively in the Latvian half it looked like it would be only be a matter of time before Karel Bruckner’s team opened the scoring. But the underdogs were well-organised and defending resolutely and what they lacked in ability they made up for in determination.
As the game approached half-time, the referee’s whistle was more evident as the match became mired in a sequence of petty fouls. The stop-start nature of the encounter was certainly benefiting the underdogs who began to thread some passes together.
However, it still came as a shock when Aleksandrs Starkovs men opened the scoring on the stroke of half-time. Stepanovs, who had earier blocked several Czech efforts, dispossessed Milan Baros on the edge of the Latvia area. The Beveren defender then played a wonderful pass down the line to Prohorenkovs, who took a couple of touches before whipping the ball across the face of goal, where Verpakovskis arrived unmarked to tap the ball into the net.
The Czechs appeared for the second half with renewed resolve but for all their industry, they still lacked any penetration up front. Indeed they had to wait 12 minutes for their first clearcut chance when Poborsky fired a vicious shot against the outside of the post.
Five minutes later Baros had an excellent opportunity to level the scores but he skied his shot from 10 yards. The same player had an even easier chance two minutes later, but from six yards out and under no pressure, Baros fluffed his shot, much to the dismay of his teammates.
However ot was not all one-way traffic and Latvia almost doubled their lead on 68 minutes when Verpakovskis’ curling shot beat Cech but
Immediately the Czechs broke up the other end to force another corner and from the resulting set-piece Nedved’s goalbound volley was tipped wide by Kolinko.
Eventually the pressure told when after a mazy run by Poborsky, the ball eluded Kolinko only to drop at the feet of Baros who fired through a mass of bodies to level the scores.
The Czechs continued to press and earned their just reward six minutes from time when the substitute Heinz took advantage of a sloppy clearance from the otherwise excellent Zemlinskis, to fire home.
The Latvians slumped to the floor, aware that their prospects getting anything from the gamem evaporated at that very moment.
The Czech Republic remain something of an unknown quantity but one thing is clear: they will need to improve dramatically if they are to emerge from a tough group, let alone be considered genuine contenders to win Euro 2004.
Czech Republic 2-1 Latvia
– Czech Republic – Milan Baros 73, Marek Heinz 85
– Latvia – Maris Verpakovskis 45+1
Czech Republic: 1-Petr Cech; 2-Zdenek Grygera (18-Marek Heinz 56), 21-Tomas Ujfalusi, 5-Rene Bolf, 6-Marek Jankulovski; 4-Tomas Galasek (7-Vladimir Smicer 64), 8-Karel Poborsky, 10-Tomas Rosicky, 11-Pavel Nedved (captain); 9-Jan Koller, 15-Milan Baros (13-Martin Jiranek 87)
Latvia: 1-Aleksandrs Kolinko; 2-Igors Stepanovs, 4-Mihails Zemlinskis, 6-Olegs Blagonadezdins, 7-Aleksandrs Isakovs; 14-Valentins Lobanovs (23-Vits Rimkus 90), 3-Vitalijs Astafjevs (captain), 8-Imants Bleidelis, 10-Andrejs Rubins; 11-Andrejs Prohorenkovs (5-Juris Laizans 71), 9-Maris Verpakovskis (17-Marian Pahars 81).
Referee: Referee: Gilles Veissiere (France)