Latvian striker Artjoms Rudnevs is the archetypal burly centre-forward, always hurling his body into the fray and striving right to the finish. “Lost cause" does not appear in his vocabulary, and two vital goals in the German Bundesliga for his new club Hamburg have underlined the reputation as an instinctive scorer he brought with him from previous spells in Hungary and Poland.
On the international front, the Latvians came away empty-handed from their first two qualifiers for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™, although they were up against arguably the two strongest teams in European Group G, namely Bosnia-Herzegovina and Greece. The Bosnians were too good on the day, but Latvia might easily have taken something from the clash with the Greeks.
The lessons from that match explain why, when he spoke to FIFA.com prior to meetings with Slovakia and Lichtenstein, the 24-year-old Rudnevs still firmly believed in the possibility of a place in Brazil. “I'd ideally like us to take six points from our next two matches, but four would be a good return as well. We'd take a step forward in the table, and we'd at least stay in touch with the top two places," he reasoned.
Must win double-header
“We didn't stand a chance against Bosnia-Herzegovina, but we could have taken something off Greece," continued the leading scorer in the Polish top flight last term. “In my opinion, Bosnia are the best team in the group. They were very good against us and they have excellent individuals. It was a totally different game against Greece. We narrowly lost it 2-1, but we could equally well have won it." Naturally, no points from two matches means the Latvians are under pressure in their next two games, as Rudnevs acknowledged: “It's important we start to accumulate points so we remain within range, in case the favourites slip up at any point."
The quality of the football in the diminutive Baltic nation has steadily improved in recent years. Their first shot at FIFA World Cup qualifying in 1992 ended without a single victory, but Latvia only narrowly missed out on the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa. They were in contention to the end and finished third in their group behind Switzerland and Greece, a commendable outcome and a confidence-booster for the nation’s footballing family. Latvia have yet to appear at a FIFA World Cup finals, but Rudnevs is determined to lead the charge and help the nation take the next sporting step. “It's a dream shared by every Latvian fan and citizen, and it’s also my greatest dream personally. It would represent a huge progress for the national team,” he declared.
Ready to give it everything
Rudnevs, who finished on 22 goals from 29 matches for Lech Poznan last season, issued a rallying cry directed not only at his team-mates but also his fellow compatriots. “Obviously I want us to succeed in World Cup qualifying – I hope we can make it to the World Cup finals. Unfortunately, I can't promise we'll qualify, but I can promise we'll give everything we have to make our fans happy," said the marksman already christened Rudi by the Hamburg faithful.
The striker, who has 18 senior caps to his name, appears to have found his feet in the Bundesliga now, and is hoping to carry the momentum from his club to his country and net his maiden goal in FIFA World Cup qualifying. The two-footed poacher has yet to find his range in a Latvia jersey and has just one goal so far. However, he is perfectly capable of ruthless finishing on the international stage, as he emphatically proved with a hat-trick against Juventus in the UEFA Champions League last term.
In looking to up his game, he might want to draw on the vast experience accumulated by all-time Latvian top scorer Maris Verpakovskis: “When I made my debut in the national team two years ago, I was thrilled to be playing alongside Maris. He’s a magnificent player and it's a pleasure to be on the team with him," the young apprentice said of the proven master.