After defeating Finnish side FC Honka Espoo 5-2 on aggregate, Lech Poznań find themselves off to Lithuania to face VMFD Žalgiris Vilnius in their Europa League Third Qualifying Round tie. EKSTRAKLASAreview asked Ruben Martinez, co-editor of Baltic Football website and digital magazine “One Nil Up” for a few words on the three-time Lithuanian Champions.
In May 2012 VMFD Žalgiris Vilnius ended their nine-year trophy drought, downing Lithuanian Cup holders FK Ekranas on penalties. It was their first title since 2003 and the success allowed the Lithuanian side to write the first lines of a fairy tale story, that is yet to reach its conclusion.
The barren spell was a period far too long for the Green & Whites, who went on in their winning streak to lift the Lithuanian Super Cup (1–0 against FK Ekranas with an extra-time goal from Mantas Kuklys) and retain the Lithuanian league Cup (8-7 win on penalties against Šiauliai after a 3-3 score) in the 2013 season. Currently sitting at the top of the A Lyga nine points clear – 47 points compared to 38 of both Atlantas and FK Ekranas -, the Green & Whites are clearly determined to put to an end the reign of the latter in domestic competitions, after five years of dominance from the side of Panevėžys.
The team coached by Polish Marek Zub (he took over in August 2012) has proved to be a strong and solid group of players. The Vilnius side, for example, accumulates only one loss in 15 games with 52 goals in favour and 8 against. Polish striker Kamil Biliński, who was named the Best Player of the 2012 season for Žalgiris, leads the top scorers chart with 13 goals in the league (16 in total this season). Biliński is just one of the highlighted names within a team that combines good local talent like defender/midfielder Mantas Kuklys (11 goals this season) and goalkeeper Armantas Vitkauskas, with foreign players such as Croatians Luka Perice (defender) and Andro Svrljuga (midfielder) or Russian Pavel Kamolov.
However, Žalgiris recently lost one of their great assets, Polish Jakub Wilk, who signed for Romanian Liga 1 side FC Vaslui. Wilk, who played for Lech Poznań from 2004/05 to 2009/10, accumulating 147 appearances for the Polish side, scored seven goals during his spell in Vilnius during the 2013 season. It is worth remembering that in 2009, the club (then FK Žalgiris) was left inoperative. The reluctance of their owners to sell it resulted in the team and fans literally continuing the club under the name of VMFD Žalgiris. The new side was only allowed in to the Lithuanian Second Division; however, it did not take more than a season for the Green & Whites to return to the top league.
After a seven-year break, the flavours of European competitions have also come back to Vilnius; in 2005, the club took part in the UEFA Intertoto Cup, reaching semifinals after beating Lisburn Distillery FC (Northern Ireland), Dinaburg FC (Latvia) and Egaleo FC (Greece), only to fall short against Romanian team CFR Cluj (aggregate 2-7). Last season, UEFA competitions saw VMFD Žalgiris back in action, and the Lithuanian team lost in the 2QR of the Europa League against Austrian team Admira Wacker (aggregate 2-6). This season the story has been, so far, different. The Green & Whites have won Irish St. Patrick’s Athletic (aggregate 4-3 after a 2-2 draw in Vilnius) and Armenian FC Pyunik (aggregate 3-1).
VMFD Žalgiris is a team that feels comfortable to sit back and play counter-attacking football as showed, for example, in the away game against St. Patrick’s, this earned the Lithuanian side a win (1-2) and the qualification for the next round. Also, the artificial turf of the LFF Stadium, where the Green Whites play can take a while for opposing teams to master, if VMFD Žalgiris can get off to a good start there is a good chance of taking some early goals, then sitting back to defend their lead.
Ruben Martinez is a co-founder and editor of One Nil Up, an English language digital magazine and blog focusing on football in the Baltic States. Follow him on @rubenmardom and @one_nil_up
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