Lithuanian First Division leaders VMFD Žalgiris are hopeful of causing an upset in the UEFA Europa League third qualifying round after a 1-0 victory against KKS Lech Poznań in Vilnius last week.
Nine points clear in their domestic championship and unbeaten in 26 matches in all competitions going into Thursday's second leg, Žalgiris are understandably confident. They will be further heartened by the knowledge that, in Polish coach Marek Zub, they have a man familiar with the challenge posed by Lech.
Zub, who turns 49 at the end of August, is positive about his side's prospects. "If we play like we did in the first leg, I think we have a 70% chance of progress," he told UEFA.com. "But the main question is how the teams take their opportunities. If we do not concede in the first half, it would be a big advantage."
Last year Zub turned down the role of assistant coach with Poland's national team to come to Žalgiris and he insists emotions will not get the better of him when he returns to his homeland. "This isn't a special occasion," he said. "What I know for sure is that for Polish football followers, myself included, it would be a big surprise if Lech were eliminated."
Zub knows well the lively reception visiting sides can receive in Poznan's Grunwald district (which translates as Green Forest in English and, coincidentally, Žalgiris in Lithuanian). However, his wish is that the atmosphere will boost his team: "I understand that my players are not used to playing in stadiums with crowds of 35,000. But I will be sure to prepare them and I think they will be excited."
Whatever the result, the campaign to this point can already be viewed as a major success for the Vilnius outfit. Once the pride of the Baltic state during the Soviet era, Žalgiris have experienced difficult times of late, even being forced to start from scratch as a new entity in 2009.
Their UEFA Europa League debut ended abruptly last year, courtesy of a 6-2 aggregate reverse against FC Admira Wacker Mödling. Yet this season Žalgiris have proven hard to beat, seeing off the Republic of Ireland's Saint Patrick's Athletic FC and FC Pyunik of Armenia to set up the Lech tie.
"Thursday's game is probably the most important since the club was reborn," Žalgiris director of football Mindaugas Nikoličius told UEFA.com. "We have a historic chance of making the UEFA Europa League play-offs."
Asked whether Žalgiris are capable of becoming the first Lithuanian side to reach the competition's group stage, Nikoličius hinted at the club's ambition. "There's nothing wrong with dreaming," he said. "We were unseeded in the first qualifying round, so needed to play well while hoping for a favourable draw. We have been fortunate so far."
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