A rejuvenated VMFD Žalgiris return to European competition on Thursday in a game with special resonance for Arminas Narbekovas, who played both for them and Austrian second qualifying round opponents VfB Admira Wacker Mödling.
Named Lithuania's Golden Player in 2003, Narbekovas has fond memories of his time as a key member of the great Žalgiris side which interrupted the Russian/Ukrainian dominance of the Supreme Soviet League by finishing third in 1987. They therefore became the first Lithuanian team to play in UEFA club competition, meeting FK Austria Wien in the 1988/89 UEFA Cup.
"It was an important event both from a sporting and personal perspective, since the competition was completely new for us," Narbekovas told UEFA.com. "We also had the chance to represent Lithuania, which was always special in those days. To face any team from abroad was something extraordinary and Austria Wien had players such as ex-Inter and Roma midfielder Herbert Prohaska."
Žalgiris upset the odds by winning the first leg 2-0 and went ahead in the return, before eventually falling to a 5-4 aggregate defeat. "We were not the favourites, but it was still disappointing," added Narbekovas, who ended up joining Austria Wien in 1990. "Maybe we were over-confident with the three-goal lead. I could have not imagined we could concede four times, let alone five."
More than two decades later, Žalgiris will once again meet Austrian opposition, this time on their UEFA Europa League debut. It represents an occasion few will relish as much as assistant coach Mindaugas Čepas, a man who links the club's past with the present. He has been there since 2004, when injury forced him to end his playing career, and was on the coaching staff during Žalgiris's last European campaign, when they reached the UEFA Intertoto Cup semi-finals in 2005.
Čepas was head coach during Žalgiris's lowest ebb, when financial troubles caused the club to start afresh from the second tier. "We could only think of how to survive and keep the name of Žalgiris on the football map," he added. "We had no idea we could be back to European football so soon. Now that we have made it, I can say that anything is possible. You just need a lot of belief and desire."
Now assistant to Damir Petravić, Čepas is eagerly anticipating Thursday's home leg against Admira. "It will be a special day for the club, for all our fans and all football lovers in the capital Vilnius," he said. "We have spent a lot of time preparing for this match and analysing the opponents. Admira are a strong side who play fast, attacking football. For us it's crucial not to concede at home and get a good result."
It might, therefore, be wise to take a word of advice from Narbekovas, who spent several seasons at Admira and believes the tie is 50-50. "A lot depends on the first match," he said. "Žalgiris have not been very stable this year so it's vital for them to build a solid foundation before the away leg."
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