In the world of football, the Latvian national team has seen a tumultuous four years under the leadership of head coach, Dainis Kazakevičs, despite his extended contract until the end of 2024. The previous regime under Slaviša Stojanovič had witnessed an unfortunate series of nine consecutive losses in the European Championship qualifying tournament, setting a rather bleak stage for Kazakevičs.
A Rocky Start
Initially, the journey with Kazakevičs at the helm has been rocky, with Latvia grappling against teams like Andorra and Malta. However, as the 2021 World Cup qualifying tournament unfolded, the team's performance improved, securing points against notable competitors such as Turkey, Norway, and Montenegro. Yet, the recent cycle has been perceived as a regression, characterized by a lone victory over Armenia and significant losses to Croatia, Wales, and Turkey.
The Coach's Perspective
In reviewing this cycle, Kazakevičs offered an average rating, admitting the results were less than satisfactory but not catastrophic. Despite the cloud of dissatisfaction hanging over the team, some national team players have publicly voiced their support for Kazakevičs, opposing any changes in the coaching staff. This solidarity comes amidst a tainted atmosphere that may make it challenging to retain the current coaching approach.
An Optimal Core and New Faces
The core of the Latvian team is at its prime, with only three defenders crossing the age of 30. This year witnessed the debut of five new players for the national team, ensuring no young talent is overlooked. The under-21 team primarily comprises players from the second tier of Latvia's top league, with FK Metta often serving as the base team.
The goalkeeper position has proven to be a weak point for the team, with three goalkeepers tested during the current cycle. The team suffered a significant blow when Vladislavs Gutkovskis, previously voted Latvia's best footballer for two years, incurred a severe knee injury. Raimonds Krollis, a promising young striker who moved to Italy, has had limited opportunities both at his club Spezia and the national team. The traditionally strong goalkeeping has been inconsistent, and disciplinary issues have led to veteran players being dropped from the team.
The UEFA Nations League Impact
The team's performance in the UEFA Nations League last year was crucial, with Estonia qualifying for the European Championship playoffs despite a worse qualifying campaign than Latvia. This was due to Estonia's success in winning their group in the Nations League. The paradox of the European Championship qualifying system was highlighted when Latvia's loss to Moldova in the final match allowed a team to potentially reach the playoffs by only defeating the weakest teams.
As the Latvian national football team navigates through this challenging phase, it is clear that the road ahead is fraught with uncertainties. Yet, the commitment of the players and the potential for growth within the team offer a glimmer of hope for better times ahead.