Soccer / Letdown in Latvia

The Baltic state's conservative coach has observers wondering whether it has a chance against Israel on Saturday

Israel's national soccer team has unpleasant memories of Latvia. During a meeting in Riga as part of the World Cup qualifying round in 2010, Israel allowed the equalizer in the last minute of play. In their return match at Ramat Gan, the anemic squad led by coach Dror Kashtan fell to the Latvians 1-0 on the strength of a header by Kaspars Gorkss.

Despite its success against Israel, the Latvians remain doubtful of their ability to impose their will against Luis Fernandez's team this Saturday night, when the two teams face off in the Euro 2012 qualifiers at Bloomfield Stadium in Jaffa.

Latvia's concerns stand on solid ground. Its top soccer league has yet to begin its season, and the national team players will arrive in Israel after playing only sparingly in cup play. In addition, Latvia will be without its star player, Aleksandrs Cauna of CSKA Moscow.

The midfielder was one of the first players on coach Aleksandrs Starkovs' list of invitees to the national team for its match against Israel. Cauna, however, could not recover in time from an injury.

It seems that Latvia's problems run deeper than its inadequate playing shape or the absence of personnel. Starkovs' critics have long claimed that since his high watermark - leading Latvia to the Euro 2004 tournament - the coach has lost his way. The major criticism of the notoriously conservative Starkovs is that he is delaying the development of young talent while favoring players that he has coached in the past.

Starkovs, who is also the head coach of the Azerbaijani club FK Baku, is known as a coach who waits a year or two before including a young player that was not one of his proteges.

"Starkovs has put together a roster of pensioners that have no rightful place on the team and are of no use," said Boris Levy, a journalist who covers the Latvian team. To bolster his argument, Levy cites the case of 19-year-old Arturs Zjuzins, who despite his age was named captain of Latvian club Ventspils.

"Zjuzins was acquired this winter by Slovakian club Zilina," Levy said. "From a professional standpoint, he's one of the best that we have, but he's not on the national team. One could be forgiven for thinking that Latvia has an abundance of offensive midfielders that know how to score goals."

The Latvian roster is filled with players who were hand picked by the coach, like 32-year-old midfielder Andrejs Rubins, who has made 114 appearances in international play. "He's on the team, even though he plays for a few minutes at a time," Levy said.

Then there is midfielder Andrejs Pereplotkins, who is in the midst of a deep scoring drought. That still did not prevent the coach from including him on the roster, according to Levy.

"On the other hand, Ivans Lukjanovs, a talented right midfielder who plays for Polish club Lechia Gdansk, was only added to the national team when he was already 24 years old," Levy said. "He barely got an invite."

One player who managed to earn a spot on Starkovs' roster is Artjoms Rudnevs, the 23-year-old forward and star of Polish club Lech Poznan. Rudnevs, who began his career with Riga before moving on to Hungarian club Zalaegerszegi, made a name for himself after scoring a hat trick against Juventus in the group stage of the Europa League.

In fact, Rudnevs is credited with Poznan's ascension into the top 32 stage of the tournament, which came courtesy of his goal in the second matchup with the Italian giant which resulted in a 1-1 draw.

It was a match that Juventus needed to win in order to advance. In 19 matches in the Polish league, Rudnevs has amassed eight goals and five assists.

"He's a mobile forward that poses a constant threat to the opposing goal," Levy said. "His fellow forward on the national team, Maris Verpakovskis, is someone who specializes in breakout attacks. When Latvia initiates the action, it gets lost. On the other hand, Rudnevs is the kind of forward that won't be satisfied with touching the ball twice during the match. He is always trying to get free, looking for the ball, and working hard even though he is still looking for his first goal after nine appearances with the national team."

Rudnevs' fine play has relegated Girts Karlsons, an adequate player in his own right with 49 appearances and nine goals for the national team, to the bench. In its 1-1 draw against Georgia, Karlsons did not play.

One player who has no reason to fear his spot on the roster is the captain, Gorkss, who is adept at utilizing free kicks and is an effective header, something which the Israelis found out during their last meeting against the Latvians. The 29-year-old defender signed a lucrative contract this season with Queens Park Rangers of the English Football League Championship. Yet even his presence in the middle of the Latvian defense is not enough to assuage observers.

"If Starkovs decides to begin the match in Tel Aviv with two ballerinas up front - Verpakovskis and Karlsons - neither an all-defensive game plan or experience will save him from defeat," said a Latvian journalist who wished to remain anonymous. "Even if he begins the match with Rudnevs and Lukjanovs, it is reasonable to expect that you will not see this conservative coach go overboard with an offensive game plan."

"It will be very strange if Israel doesn't defeat Latvia at this stage of the season given the level that our national team is at right now," Levy said. "If they don't win because of the gap in ability, then at least it should be out of revenge."