Czechs rescued as Heinz's late strike breaks brave Latvia

Czech Republic 2 Latvia 1
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The Independent Football

The Czech Republic were in acute danger of suffering similar, or even greater embarrassment than their hosts here yesterday when they were rescued by two goals, so untidy that they did nothing for their reputation as one of the tournament's most skilful sides.

The Czech Republic were in acute danger of suffering similar, or even greater embarrassment than their hosts here yesterday when they were rescued by two goals, so untidy that they did nothing for their reputation as one of the tournament's most skilful sides.

That, though, was the least of the worries of Karel Bruckner's players who had trailed to the Latvian outsiders for nearly half an hour, fearing no doubt, a defeat as painful and unexpected as the one Portugal endured against Greece up the road in Porto last Saturday.

Group D was supposed to be the "group of death" in which any two from three would qualify. The threesome did not include Latvia, who had never qualified for a major tournament before their surprising victory in a play-off over Turkey last November earned them the right to come to Portugal where they were supposed to be merely making up the numbers.

The fierce resistance of the men from the Baltic state suggested otherwise, however, and they ended their opening fixture by giving the 1996 runners-up the fright of their lives.

The Czechs had started brightly, the idea being presumably to notch an early goal before their opponents had settled. Time after time they carved them open down the left, with Pavel Nedved looking every bit the European Footballer of the Year. His early chip had Aleksandrs Kolinko stretching but Nedved was soon putting Marek Jankulovski in to fire an angled shot across the face of the Latvian goal. Kolinko just got a fingertip to Nedved's next cross from the opposite flank to prevent the giant Czech Jan Koller from getting in a decisive header.

Latvia suddenly confirmed that they would not be lying down when Andrejs Prohorenkovs sprinted down the right to float over a cross that was just missed by the diving Maris Verpakovskis. But that was a brief interruption in the traffic that was going increasingly one way.

Karel Poborsky, much shorter of hair these days than when he was tearing down Manchester United's wings at Old Trafford, was denied by Kolinko's flying save before Rene Bolf cantered up from central defence to head just over.

Poborsky hit a screamer just over before the Latvian defender Mihails Zemlinskis did his side no favours with a back pass that almost let in Koller. And then another mistake by Andrejs Rubins conceded possession to Poborsky, whose drive was blocked by Igors Stepanovs.

The next act of the excellent Stepanovs was to halt a run by Tomas Galasek and mastermind a goal that might have been manufactured in the Premiership. Stepanovs, who is still on Arsenal's books despite an apparent career-long loan to Beveren in Belgium, where he lines up most weekends with 10 Ivorians, sent a long pass out to Prohorenkovs on the left. His cross was perfection, inviting Verpakovskis to score from barely a yard out.

How David Jones, the manager of Wolverhampton Wanderers must have winced at that moment, seconds from the interval. Verpakovskis was on trial at Molineux before last season but, though not offered a contract, he was obviously not too distressed as he went on to score six goals for his country in their qualifying campaign, leaving Jones in charge of a doomed team.

The Czechs maintained the pressure after the interval with Milan Baros missing at the far post and Kolinko saving at the second attempt a snap shot.

But the Latvians could not hold out. When Poborsky made tracks down the right, going past Rubins and Vitalijs Astafjes, he seemed to take the ball out of play before laying on the cross that Baros, the Liverpool striker, rammed home for the 73rd-minute equaliser.

Bruckner had helped the Czech cause with a couple of astute substitutions, especially the introduction of the fair-haired striker Marek Heinz who skimmed the bar with a piledriver before hammering home the 85th minute winner.

Trevor Francis, the manager with whom Kolinko clashed at Crystal Palace, would not have been impressed with the way the goalkeeper made a rash rush from his goal to halt a raid by Baros. Zemlinskis failed to clear the loose ball which fell conveniently for Heinz.

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