With Russian influence on and off the pitch, FK Banga have emerged as the surprise package in the opening rounds of the 2014 Lithuanian A Lyga season.
Based in Gargzdai – a town neighbouring the port city of Klaipeda with a population of less than 15,000 – second-placed Banga trail champions VMFD Žalgiris by three points seven games into the campaign and also stand on the brink of reaching their second Lithuanian Cup final. One of the smallest sides in the top division, Banga have proud traditions; Gargzdai was home to a number of Lithuanian internationals, notably Arminas Narbekovas, named the country's Golden Player as part of UEFA's jubilee celebrations in 2004.
However, despite five successive sixth-placed finishes in the league since the club's reformation in 2006, Vaidas Žutautas, a locally born former international goalkeeper and long-term member of Banga's coaching staff, told UEFA.com: "We are tired of being that stable mediocre team. We want to go higher."
That frustration may have prompted Banga, previously co-financed by the local municipality and sponsors, to accept foreign investment in the form of a group of young Russian entrepreneurs – including former journeyman striker Dmitri Bayda. "We have mutual friends with Narbekovas and he gave us the idea," explained Bayda in February after becoming vice-president. "It's a long-term project. We are taking it step by step, producing young players. Why here in Lithuania? With an average budget of a Russian third division side, you can do much more. There's also a chance of playing in Europe. It's much more enticing."
Former SC Rotor Volgograd midfielder Maksim Tishchenko was subsequently installed as coach, signing ten players from Russia. "We just needed to make a slight adjustment because every coach has his own ideas," said Tishchenko, a Russian Premier-Liga runner-up with Rotor in 1997. "I don't have a preferred playing style – what's important is that we achieve our goals. We are capable of improving on last year's results."
With six Russian players – the league limit on foreigners – regularly featuring alongside more experienced home-grown performers, Banga began the season with six successive clean sheets, amid a run of four wins. "Our defensive game is key because everyone in the team is involved and everyone knows their job," said forward Aurelijus Staponka. "At Banga we've never had too many of what you would call individual players."
A little bit of extra know-how, says Žutautas, has been instrumental. "The arrival of players such as Davydas Arlauskis, Aleksey Epifanov and Aleksandr Russkih – the latter two boasting Russian Premier League experience – has made a difference."
Banga's unbeaten start ended on Saturday when a 90th-minute goal condemned them to a 1-0 loss at FK Granitas, a team they had beaten 2-0 in their Lithuanian Cup semi-final first leg three days earlier. "We were too relaxed," said Žutautas. "It's nice to have a good start, but the championship is a long one. This year there's only one favourite – Žalgiris – and one underdog FK Dainava. The other eight sides will fight with each other. You might finish second, third or seventh."
While Banga are keeping their feet on the ground in the league, they are dreaming of success in the cup. Should the 2011 runners-up hold on to their first-leg advantage and holders Žalgiris do the same against FK Trakai in the other semi, Banga would almost certainly participate in 2014/15 UEFA Europa League qualifying. "We are not there yet," warned Žutautas. "But, of course, the cup is a very important objective. We hope to qualify for Europe and to win the trophy."
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