Superb Stepanovs keeps Germany at bay

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The Independent Online

The way Latvia celebrated after this hard-fought draw you would have thought they had won the European Championship itself. They had not, but instead had won their first tournament point, and they rightly congratulated themselves for squeezing a draw out of a match against the most successful team in European Championship history.

The way Latvia celebrated after this hard-fought draw you would have thought they had won the European Championship itself. They had not, but instead had won their first tournament point, and they rightly congratulated themselves for squeezing a draw out of a match against the most successful team in European Championship history.

Everyone had predicted that the Baltic country would be on the end of crushing defeats in Group D, but they have now even given themselves a chance to qualify for the quarter-finals. With the hosts' place at stake today, this is building up to be a tournament with more shocks than a Wes Craven film.

Latvia had a containing policy and announced themselves to Germany in bruising fashion, with Alex Isakov picking up a yellow card after just 30 seconds for a nasty tackle on Torsten Frings. Once they had calmed down they could lay claim to having the best chance of the first half.

Their star striker Maris Verpakovskis very nearly scored what would have been a strong contender for goal of the tournament with five minutes to go to the break. The Dynamo Kiev forward turned and ran from the halfway line, beating three Germans on the way, but his low shot lacked power and Oliver Kahn had a routine save to make.

Germany's coach, Rudi Völler, who despite his illustrious years as a player for his country never won the European Championship, made a couple of changes to his line-up after their 1-1 draw with Holland last week. One was enforced, with Frank Baumann dropping back from midfield to central defence, where he replaced the injured Jens Nowotny. The other was tactical, installing Fredi Bobic as Kevin Kuranyi's strike partner and going with two strikers, something he did not do against the Dutch.

It was not a change that met with auspicious success. Bobic, a veteran of Euro 96, looks exactly that, while Kuranyi was forced to try his luck from long range.

The playmaker Michael Ballack was doing likewise, and with 33 minutes gone he forced a good save from Alex Kolinko, who also kept out a Kuranyi shot from 20 yards.

While Völler had presented Germany as underdogs and arranged his tactics accordingly against Holland, he knew he had to attack Latvia and go for three points that would bring them that much closer to the quarter-finals and simultaneouslyeliminate Latvia.

The Baltic state were unchanged from their game last Tuesday. That meant there was no place, once again, for Marian Pahars, with the Southampton striker overlooked in favour of Verpakovskis, who earned the distinction of scoring Latvia's first goal in the finals of a major competition with his first-half strike against the Czech Republic last Tuesday. It was not enough, though, as the Czechs came from behind to win 2-1.

The English contingent, past and present, was still strong in the starting line-up, however. Igor Stepanovs, who was released by Arsenal last week, made his customary appearance in the centre of defence. Also Kolinko, the former Crystal Palace goalkeeper, was making his 50th appearance for his country the day after his 29th birthday.

Verpakovskis had complained about the heat down the road in Aveiro after that defeat, so he would have been delighted with the weather here in Porto, where the heatwave that has sat over Portugal's second city has abated thanks to the presence of a few clouds and some wind.

With things level at half-time, Völler made a similar change to the one he had introduced against Holland, namely bringing on Bastian Schweinsteiger. The Bayern Munich teenager has caused quite a stir in his first full season with the German giants and was brought on at half-time to add attacking impetus from the left-hand side. He likes to score goals and would have done so but for Kuranyi. With 59 minutes gone the ball was pulled back, but Kuranyi got to the ball first with Schweinsteiger better placed.

However his introduction also meant the Latvians earned more space to hit on the counterattack. That they did with 54 minutes gone, and arguably should have had a penalty. Verpakovskis got between two defenders and fell to ground but the Premiership referee, Mike Riley, refused to award a spot-kick or, equally, book the striker for diving. Germany could find no way past the increasingly impregnable Latvian defence, marshalled superbly by Stepanovs.

Although Latvia were not adventurous in the second half, that was because it was Germany's moral imperative to press forward and take the game to the underdogs, who ultimately succeeded in their ambition of snatching a point that no one expected them to earn.

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