Thursday, October 16, 2014

Baltic region October 2014

Five Euro qualifiers in five days in the Baltic region.

9th October 2014  Lithuania 1 Estonia 0  Vilnius   4,780  (c. 300 away)

A flight from Luton to the first of the Euro 2016 qualifiers, played on an artificial pitch in the Lithuanian capital.

In cool, but not too cold, dry, conditions this was a Baltic derby that generally lacked great quality.

For much of the game the two sides seemed to cancel each other out as we saw little concise play in the final third.

Both teams used some long throws - without significant effect,

Novikovas of the home side did display some good left foot delivery and a decent shot but that was the exception.

Arlauskis in the Lithuanian goal was at times dynamic but at other moments erratic.
A point that wouldn’t be lost on any watching England representative.

A single goal, scored from close in by sub. Mikoliunas decided the outcome although the away cause was not helped by having a man dismissed later in the second period.

Perhaps the artificial pitch will assist Lithuania in the future as they battle for a probable third place in the group.
But expect England and Switzerland to fill the first two positions.

I was back at my hotel, near the station, before midnight for a beer (and nuts) nightcap.

10th October  Latvia 0 Iceland 3     6,354  (c. 40 away)

Some four and a half hours on the bus from Vilnius to Riga for my second Euro 2016 qualifier.

The Skonto stadium is a step up from the one in Vilnius being also three-sided but covered.

On a cool, dry evening the home side mostly relied on long balls which tended to fail and their chances were further diminished when their main striker, Rudnevs, was sent off early in the second half.

Soon after a piece of class (control, turn and shot)  from Premier League player Gylfi Sigurdsson put Iceland ahead and they added another two including a determined effort from sub. Gislason in the final minute.
That was the last minute of ‘normal’ time as we had eight extra due to an injury to the Austrian referee.

This was a solid win for the visitors against a home side that had one flurry near the end but not much else.
Could it be time for Iceland to make it through to the finals for the first time ?

Their group, also including the Netherlands, Turkey and the Czechs, is difficult but after two wins they have a chance.

A twenty minute walk back to hotel, a beer and bed followed the match.

11th October  Finland 1 Greece 1   26,548  (c. 300 away)

Another 4.5 hour bus ride - this time to Tallinn and a quick transfer to the Tallink terminal for the boat across to Helsinki.

On the Baltic Queen you have musical entertainment and long queues for the duty free.
A few staggered around either due to alcohol consumption or the weight of their packs of beer.

Helsinki was significantly cooler than Vilnius and Riga and hence the woolly hat and extra layers were needed in the historic Olympic stadium for my third consecutive 9.45pm kick-off.

This one was a bit of a step up from the other two in terms of quality and the second half provided some decent action.

Before that Greece had gone ahead from a fine (if slightly lucky) left footed strike from Nikos Karelis..
But Finland started the second period aggressively and pressed the visitors back getting their reward via a volley from the unmarked Hurme.

Indeed the home side could have done even better as they had a great breakaway chance later in the half, with four attackers bearing down on one defender, but the crucial pass was blocked.

Greek coach Claudio Ranieri decided to bring on the big guns (Samaras and Mitroglou) rather late - in the final ten minutes, and they were unable to affect the outcome.
Expect the well travelled Italian to be under pressure for that decision and that Greece have only one point from their opening two matches.

While Finland can be happy with a point off the group favourites.

I warmed up with a brisk walk back to the Radisson and a pricey (small) bottle of red wine.

12th October  Estonia 0 England 1   10,195 (c. 1,200 away)

Boat across from Helsinki to Tallinn and a revisit to the Le Coq Arena.

Which is certainly an improvement on the stadiums used in Lithuania and Latvia.
And, as in 2007, a good turnout by the locals to see our boys.

Who were not particularly fluent against a resilient home defence who even managed to contain the visitors with ten men for quite a lot of the second period.

Captain, leading by example, Wayne Rooney was often central to the action.
Either playing centrally, possibly to the detriment of Welbeck, or involved in a mixed outcome of free kicks.

Eventually he got it right, a la Beckham, with a strike over the wall and past the scrambling Estonian goalie for the winner.
Rooney should have got closer to the national goal scoring record later on but fluffed his chance.

Two or three nil would have been about par but overall it was of little significance as England got the three points anyway.

The locals did have some moments to cheer when the home side got close but Joe Hart was never troubled.

After three very late finishes it was a relief to have time for more than one glass red wine and some great football conversation back at the hotel.

13th October  Latvia 1 Turkey 1   6,432  (c. 400 away)

A return to Riga via the bus from Tallinn.

This time a better game with Latvia, again playing with ten men for a period, gaining a well earned point against the more favoured Turks.

Early on it looked like Turkey would overrun the home side with fast, incisive attacking.
But they failed to achieve a breakthrough and gradually the Latvians got into the match.

The first half was goalless but the visitors scored early in the second via a snapshot from sub. Kisa.
And it seemed Turkey would go on to victory but Latvia were awarded a dubious looking penalty, which the bandaged Valerijs Sabala converted for the leveller.

Although Turkey pressed the ten men the home side also had their moments and the locals could go home reasonably happy with their teams efforts.

While Turkey, missing some players, will no doubt improve.

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