Estádio do Bessa Século XXI, Porto, 19.06.2004
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Having played an excellent opening match against the Netherlands where they had been desperately unlucky not to claim the three points, Germany would next take on group outsiders Latvia, who were playing for the first time in a major tournament finals as an independent nation. The Latvians had come close to pulling off a shock against the highly-rated Czech Republic – going down 2-1 after they had held the lead for almost three quarters of the match – but everybody expected the Mannschaft to have more than enough firepower to take the win and move themselves towards a place in the quarter-finals.
Nationaltrainer Rudi Völler would make a number of changes to the side that had drawn 1-1 with the Netherlands, selecting two strikers in would be a far more attacking 4-3-1-2 line-up. With Jens Notowny being injured utility man Frank Baumann would be shifted back into the four-man defensive unit, while in midfield Bernd Schneider, Dietmar Hamann and Torsten Frings would offer a mix of style and solidity with playmaker Michael Ballack adopting a more advanced role.
Up front, the new two-man attack would see Kevin Kurányi being joined by Hertha BSC’s Fredi Bobić – a move that confirmed the coach’s clear intent to take the game to their opponents at the compact Estádio do Bessa Século XXI, Porto’s second stadium and home of Boavista FC.
In front of a crowd of just over twenty-thousand England’s Mike Riley signalled the start of the game on what was a warm yet pleasant Porto afternoon, with the Mannschaft in their traditional Schwarz und Weiß outfit and the Latvians in a striking dark red ensemble.
Rudi Völler’s side would get the match underway, and within a minute it would be the referee who would notch up the first statistic in handing out a slightly harsh booking to Latvian defender Aleksandrs Isakovs. Meanwhile, just minutes later Andrejs Prohorenkovs would escape with a hands-on-the-neck shove on Christian Wörns.
The opening ten minutes would pass by with little incident, with the whistle-happy Mr. Riley perhaps making the biggest impression. The first shot on goal would not come until the thirteenth minute with Kevin Kurányi sending a right-footed shot wide of the target, and just past the twenty-minute mark Oliver Kahn would be called into action as he gathered in an on-target effort from Māris Verpakovskis after Arne Friedrich had been booked for an innocuous-looking handball offence.
Latvian ‘keeper Aleksandrs Koļinko had spent the open quarter of the match as a virtual spectator, and it would take until the twenty-sixth minute for what was clearly a sluggish and well-marked German side to engineer their first genuine opportunity as Michael Ballack had a shot blocked and Kurányi headed narrowly wide. Völler’s side would start to show more urgency and up the tempo, but a combination of a poor final ball and solid defending would continue to thwart them.
Koļinko would beat away a firm shot by Kurányi in the thirty-third minute, but when Dietmar Hamann was needlessly dispossed less than a minute later Wörns would need to be on hand to hack the ball clear with the dangerous Verpakovskis lurking. Verpakovskis would come even closer some six minutes later: seizing the ball on the halfway line, he charged down the pitch towards the German goal but could only send in a weak shot that was gratefully collected by Oliver Kahn.
Three minutes before half-time Mike Riley would be reaching for his pocket once again as Hamann was booked, and when both teams headed off for the dressing rooms the Latvians would have been pleased with what had been for them a solid forty-five minutes. Nationaltrainer Rudi Völler however would have had stronger things to say, with his side a shadow of the one that had played so well in their opening game against the Netherlands.
Völler would make a change at the start of the second half with youngster Bastian Schweinsteiger coming on for Bernd Schneider, and the Mannschaft would start with a little more urgency. Torsten Frings would become the third German player to make his name into Mr. Riley’s notebook with a clumsy challenge on Andrejs Rubins, but just minutes the English referee would miss what looked like a clear foul in the box by Frank Baumann on Verpakovskis.
Arguably lucky not to concede a penalty, the Mannschaft would continue to press at the other end against the obdurate red-shirted defence, with Lahm sending in a neat low cross only to see Kurányi and Schweinsteiger get in each others’ way before Ballack blasted the ball over the crossbar. Frustration would start to show on German faces both on and off the pitch, with Völler off the bench and prowling the touchline with a scowl.
An irate Rudi Völler vents his frustration as his team fails to breach the packed Latvian defence
While the German front pairing of Kurányi and Fredi Bobić had been disappointing, their Latvian counterparts had been willing and energetic: just past the hour mark, Verpakovskis was unlucky not to free himself of Baumann, getting his legs in a tangle with Prohorenkovs waiting in space for what would surely have been a goal-creating pass. Germany would get a shot on target as a Ballack free-kick was beaten away by Koļinko, but as the minutes continued to tick by it was the underdogs who looked the better side.
Bobić would come agonisingly close as he slid in to meet a Kurányi cross on sixty-six minutes, but it would be the Hertha BSC man’s last piece of the action with Miroslav Klose being sent on to replace him. With nothing happening up front and Völler getting increasingly desperate as the clock ticked by, the coach would turn from bright young thing to journeyman, as Kurányi was replaced by Hannover 96’s Thomas Brdarić – and a chorus of whistles from frustrated German supporters.
For all Germany’s huffing and puffing, Koļinko had not had to make a single save, and the every move by the men in white shirts would be frustratingly predictable. At the other end, there would be another fortunate penalty escape for the Mannschaft as Verpakovskis appeared to have his heels clipped by Wörns; 0-0 was bad enough, but it could so very easily have been worse. With seconds to go in the regulation ninety minutes, the Latvian number nine would come close again, but would be unable to direct his header past Kahn.
As the game went into additional time Germany would produce what would probably be their best and clearest chance of the match. Having not had a single sniff of an opportunity since his arrival more than twenty minutes earlier, substitute Klose would be presented with a chance to save his side’s blushes.
Philipp Lahm would swing a teasing cross into the Latvian box from the left, which floated over the head of Ballack. The Kaiserslautern striker meanwhile would be lurking with intent in the six-yard box, with plenty of time and space having lost his marker. With the ball floating in, it should have been a done deal: one of the best headers of the ball in the game, no pressure, and plenty of space. He would get his head to the ball, only to mistime it completely and send it wide. It was even worse watching it in slow motion.
For a predator of Klose’s quality the miss bordered on the embarrassing, but was clearly symptomatic of the team’s overall performance. They clearly didn’t deserve to snatch the points, and it is fair to say that a goal at this stage would have been awfully cruel to the brave Latvians.
When the final whistle blew the Latvian players would take the plaudits from their small group of supporters in the crowd, while the disappointed Germans dragged themselves off the pitch to a cacophony of jeers and whistles. They now had two points from their opening two matches. By the time the evening was over they would know what they had to do: with the Czech Republic having beaten the Dutch 3-2 in a pulsating encounter, nothing less than victory in their final match would be required.
Germany: Kahn (c) – A. Friedrich, Wörns, Baumann, Lahm – Schneider (46. Schweinsteiger), Hamann, Frings – Ballack – Bobić (67. Klose), Kurányi (78. Brdarić)
Latvia: Koļinko – Isakovs, Zemļinskis, Stepanovs, Blagonadeždins – Bleidelis, Lobaņovs (70. Laizāns), Rubins – Astafjevs – Verpakovskis (90. Zirnis), Prohorenkovs (67. Pahars)
Referee: Michael Riley (England)
Assistants: Philip Sharp (England), Glenn Turner (England)
Fourth Official: Alain Hamer (Luxembourg)
Yellow Cards: Friedrich, Hamann, Frings / Isakovs, Astafjevs
Red Cards: – / –