If you had offered Dundalk supporters the chance to face the side ranked 30th out of the 32 teams in the first qualifying round of the Champions League then they’d have probably ripped your hand off. Make no mistake about it though, Riga FC will be no pushovers when the sides go head to head next month.
History, or a lack of it, is the key reason the Latvian champion’s co-efficient is where it is and while Vinny Perth’s side will undoubtedly enter the game as favourites, chances are there won’t be a great deal between the sides.
Riga FC were only registered in 2014 before being officially established in 2015 after a merger between two of the city’s clubs – FC Caramba Riga and Dinamo Riga.
The newly-established club began life in the Latvian First League (second tier) under the name FC Caramba/Dinamo and won promotion to the Higher League (Virslīga) at the first time of asking as champions in 2015.
It was after winning promotion that they changed their name to Riga FC.
Since 2016, home games have been played at the 9,500 capacity Skonto Stadium, former home of Skonto who dissolved in 2016. This is also where the Latvian national side played their home games up until 2017.
Riga achieved a fifth-place finish in their first season in the top-flight before coming third of seven teams in the 2017 season after Babite had been thrown out mid-season following a match-fixing scandal.
Thanks to that third-place finish, they qualified for the Europa League last year where they came up against CSKA Sofia. The Bulgarians won the home leg 1-0 but lost by the same margin in the second leg in Riga before eventually advancing 5-3 on penalties.
Ex-Ukraine international Viktor Skrypnyk was appointed as manager ahead of that maiden European tie and went on to lead the club to their first Virslīga title and Latvian Cup wins.
They finished top of the league four points clear of six-time champions Ventspils, whom they also defeated in the cup final on penalties last October.
Following their 6-1 victory over third placed FK Spartaks Jurmala on Friday, Riga FC currently head the table by three points from second placed RFC after 16 matches played. This season hasn’t been without its problems, however, with a series of managerial changes.
Before they had begun their title defence, the club announced the departure of Skrypnyk in February.
Since then, they appointed Portuguese Luís Berkemeier Pimenta who left in March before the start of the new season. He was replaced by reserve team coach Mihails Konevs on a caretaker basis.
Belarus native Oleg Kubarev took the reins at the end of March but he then left at the end of April at which point Konevs was re-appointed and there he remains with the club back on top of the table.
A run of seven wins, a draw and two defeats in their 10 league matches under Konevs has them in good form heading into Europe with three games still to play before they travel to Dundalk for the first leg on July 10th.
Konevs has switched between 4-1-4-1 and 4-2-3-1 formations this season with 25-year-old Serbian sharp-shooter Darko Lemajic the man usually picked to lead the line. The 25-year-old, who was the league’s top scorer with 15 goals in 24 matches last season, has missed the last five games through injury but a familiar name to Dundalk fans has been drafted in with Roman Debelko, who played against the Lilywhites for Levadia Tallinn last season, leading the line against Spartaks Jumala on Friday.
Polish forward Kamil Bilinski also came off the bench on Friday to nab a late brace which took his return for the season to three goals in five outings. Bilinski will be well known to St Patrick’s Athletic supporters having scored in both legs for Lithuanian side FK Žalgiris as they beat the Inchicore side 4-3 on aggregate in the Europa League in 2013.
Tomislav Saric is another key player for the Latvian champions. The 28-year-old Croatian plays as a defensive midfielder in the 4-2-3-1 formation or in the central pair in the 4-1-4-1 and has also bagged a couple of goals this season.
Riga might not have history behind them but they do have experience. Eleven of their current squad have been capped at international level, not just by Latvia but by Albania, Georgia and Serbia.
The most experienced of their side is captain, 35-year-old midfielder Aleksejs Visnakovs, who has amassed 81 caps for Latvia. Olegs Laizans, Ritvars Rugins and Arturs Karasausks, all featured in Latvia’s recent Euro 2020 qualifiers against Israel and Slovenia.
Nine of the current squad have also played for the now dissolved Skonto Riga, who in 2015 beat a Pat’s side containing current Dundalk stars Sean Hoare and Jamie McGrath 4-1 on aggregate.
The prize on offer for the winners is a meeting with either FK Partizani (Albania) or Qarabag FK (Azerbaijan) in the second qualifying round of the Champions League. Dundalk will hope they’re looking to those far flung destinations rather than planning for a Europa League qualifier against either their old foes BATE Borisov or Polish champions Piast Gliwice.
Perth’s side have what it takes to get the job done over two legs but, make no mistake, it won’t be easy.