With the financial crisis biting hard in Lithuania, last season's surprise champions FK Ekranas are finding themselves billed as favourites for 2009, and coach Valdas Urbonas told uefa.com: "We don't want to take a step backwards."
Change of fortunes
Ekranas won the title by ten points in 2008, but while that success was against the run of play, the fact that deposed champions FBK Kaunas and FK Vėtra have both shed a lot of talent in the winter has led many to bill the titleholders as favourites this time around. Urbonas said: "We don't want to take a step backwards from last season, but it harder to defend a title than to win it."
The season will start exceptionally early this year, on 15 March, with the difficult economic situation in the Baltic republic likely to make the cold weather bite that little bit harder. Ekranas have had a busier winter than most, reaching the quarter-finals of the Commonwealth Cup in Moscow – the competition for the champions of all the former Soviet Republics – but are now back home.
The 41-year-old Urbonas said: "We started the main stage of our preparations at the beginning of February. For the moment we are training in Lithuania, playing our friendly games at the indoor sports centre in Marijampole. At the end of the month we plan to go to Czech Republic and spend one of our training camps there."
Given the parlous financial state of some clubs, such foreign jaunts might be considered a luxury, but Ekranas president Aušrys Labinas has insisted that his side's budget for the season would not be cut despite the economic downturn, with Urbonas – whose contract with the Panevzys side expires at the end of the season – saying: "Our team is not suffering from any financial problems."
Nonetheless, Ekranas have seen four first XI regulars leave since their title celebrations, with defender Alfredas Skroblas released, Andrius Šidlauskas sent on trial to Belarussian champions FC BATE Borisov and Vitalijus Kavaliauskas and Laurynas Rimavičius joining new clubs in Kazakhstan. Their only new signing has been 26-year-old Canadian striker Stephan Ademolu.
Despite that net loss of players, the cagey Urbonas said his side would not be any weaker in 2009. "We have kept the spine of the team. We prefer to count on our youngsters. We have had a number of players aged 22-23 who were very close to the starting lineup last season. Kavaliauskas and Šidlauskas still might return and Ademolu has adapted well and can increase our attacking potential."
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