SK Liepājas Metalurgs coach Rüdiger Abramczik admits it would be a miracle if his Latvian titleholders reached the UEFA Champions League third qualifying round, but the emergence of Deniss Rakeļs has allowed them to dream.
Four years ago Metalurgs' maiden campaign in Europe's elite club competition was brought to an abrupt end as they went down 8-1 on aggregate to the mighty FC Dynamo Kyiv. The draw this time around has hardly been kinder, with Czech champions AC Sparta Praha awaiting them in the second qualifying round on 13 July. "What can we do?" asked an exasperated Abramczik. "Metalurgs always draw the strongest opponents."
The German coach has installed Sparta as "clear favourites", not least because his side are struggling to find their form in the First Division this season, trailing FK Ventspils and Skonto FC after 11 games. "It's a nonsense," he said after last week's 2-1 home defeat by FK Jūrmala. "If we want to defend the title we just can't play like that.
If we put in a performance like that against Sparta, they'll laugh at us."
Rakeļs has been a major boon, though. Having scored nine goals in his breakthrough campaign last term, the 17-year-old striker is already up to eight in ten appearances in 2010. With the teenager a senior international too, it is hard to imagine Metalurgs without him. "I don't think I'm one of Metalurgs' leaders," said a modest Rakeļs. "We have many experienced players, and our game is based on them. I have to point out, though, that no one treats me like a little boy.
"I just want to score goals.
I came to Metalurgs less than a year ago, but I feel that a lot is expected of me already in terms of goals and performances." He will certainly have to take any chances against Sparta, and while Abramczik says it will be a "miracle if we go through", the youngster is more hopeful. "It will be tough and Sparta are probably stronger than any team I've faced, but we can make them nervous. Believe me, we're not going to give up without a fight."