A look back at the World Cup qualifiers in Latvia.
By Simon Walker
The England Futsal team came so close to making history and qualifying for the first time in their short existence to the World Cup Main Round. England missed out on making this major breakthrough on goal-difference, with Norway edging past the disappointed English as the best runners-up by just a three goal variance.
England got off to a tough start on the opening night of the Group C qualifying group in Riga, as they faced the much fancied hosts, Latvia. Latvia, ranked over 45 places higher than England in the World Rankings, looked a strong outfit from the outset, passing the ball swiftly and placing England under intense pressure throughout the match. England adopted a defensive mind-set for the first period, allowing the Latvians possession and instead concentrating on reducing any goal threat and looking to strike on the counter-attack.
These tactics initially worked well for England; with the score 2-1 to Latvia at half-time, Pete Sturgess’ men were still very much a potent challenge for the home team. Indeed, the outlook at the interval could have been so much different with England having three excellent opportunities to add to Doug Reed’s goal. The second half started ominously with Latvia catching England napping and scoring immediately, but England through captain Luke Ballinger had a gilt-edged chance to make it 3-2 straight from the re-start but his shot cannoned against the bar. This changed the entire dynamics of Sturgess’ tactics for the second period as the England team were forced to press forward to seek the goals that would bring them back into the match, and this proved a significant undoing for the team and played into the Latvian hands.
The Latvians showed their guile and poise by ruthlessly punishing any English mistakes with faultless finishing. Latvia added a further four goals to their tally as they twisted the knife into England to the great pleasure of the home supporters and ended up 7-1 victors. This scoreline definitely did not tell the full story of this game, as England were very much in contention until the last quarter of the match. As in previous matches in recent times, England’s wasted chances at crucial points in the game would prove their undoing.
A deflated England team had much soul-searching to do prior to the following evening’s match against Cyprus. The players recognised that the severity of the defeat against Latvia had almost made it impossible to qualify, but a win against Cyprus was essential in order to keep the faintest of hopes alive that they could still make the Main Round of the competition as one of the two best runners-up. However, Cyprus would not be an easy game; ranked 20 places above England in the World and having beaten England twice in Cyprus in 2010 this would be a real challenge. And when Georgios opened the scoring for the Cypriots in the second minute of the game the signs did not look good for the English.
But the English players held their nerve and continued with their game plan, and were promptly rewarded with a smart finish from Ben Mortlock to bring the scores level. The game became tense and exciting as both teams had good spells of possession and created half-chances that would give either side the advantage. And it was Cyprus two minutes before half-time who struck again to take the lead. This slender lead was short-lived as England got a critical equaliser through an excellent passing move eight seconds later. Ian Parkes chose an opportune moment to grab his first goal for his country, with a calm finish past the goalkeeper to make it 2-2 at half-time.
The second period began to see England realise that the game was there for the taking, and they began to wrestle control away from Cyprus and become the dominant force with some exquisite play. But as time ticked by, England’s possession had not tellingly translated into additional goals, and the possibility of Cyprus cruelly snatching a winner on the counter-attack became a real possibility. But England showed maturity, sticking to their superior passing game and working hard to create the chance that would seal the game; and that opportunity came in the 36th minute after Cyprus committed their sixth foul and a long-penalty was awarded to England.
Up stepped England’s highest ever international goal-scorer, Luke Ballinger, whose shot was easily saved by the 'keeper. Cyprus had been afforded a lifeline and began to press forward to steal the game. But with two minutes left on the clock, slick first time passing enabled Morgan the opportunity to fire a precision cross into the box for Ballinger to redeem his earlier mistake and head into the top corner to give England a 3-2 win, and to score the goal of the tournament.
This excellent win for England ensured that Sturgess’ men were still in with a chance of qualifying as they went into their last match against San Marino. England needed to win their game, and either hope Andorra beat Norway in Group B or score four more goals than the Norwegians to stand any chance of progressing.
England dominated San Marino as they played with confidence and style, cutting their opponents open with regularity. England however struggled to take their chances, until Neil Morgan slotted home from an acute angle half-way through the first period. The English were however somewhat surprised when Michelotti snatched an equaliser against the run of play. But Will Rooke eased England’s concerns in the dying seconds of the first half as he scored his first goal for England from close range.
England started the second half on fire, with Rooke adding two more goals in quick succession to claim his hat-trick and to give England a 4-1 lead. But again a couple of lapses of concentration from England afforded San Marino two chances from which they scored, with Jason Kilbride scoring a fifth for England to give them a 5-3 lead going into the last few minutes of the game.
At the same time in Group B, Andorra had been winning against Norway for most of their game, meaning that England would qualify. But in the dying minutes of that match Norway somehow got back into the match and were leading 4-3; England would need to score more goals to have any chance of qualifying. Sturgess’ men pushed forward valiantly trying to add to their goal tally, but to no avail. The match finished 5-3 to England, and Norway won 4-3 and sealed their place in the next round.
Although it was a disappointing climax for the England squad, the damage had already been done with the heavy defeat in the first game to Latvia, and it would have been some feat for England to qualify after that set-back. On reflection, this was an enormously promising and positive qualifying tournament for England, with two important victories and an excellent first half display against Latvia. It was always an ambitious aspiration to hope for a win against a formidable Latvian team, who deserved to top the group. But the quality of this young England side bodes well for the future; and the next step is to really begin challenging and beating sides of the calibre of Latvia.