Something may have to give when Lithuanian league leaders FK Ekranas host Irish counterparts Cork City FC.
By Kestutis Gimbutas and Aidan Fitzmaurice
The UEFA Cup kicks off tonight with 50 teams bidding for a place in the second qualifying round, but for in-form Cork City FC and FK Ekranas their successful seasons are already well under way.
Both sides are on course for their first league titles since 1992/93 after terrific first halves to their respective campaigns. In Lithuania, Ekranas have amassed a 12-point lead over perennial First Division champions FBK Kaunas after losing just one of their opening 20 games.
Those matches have wrought 48 goals but Ekranas are built on the bedrock of a strong defence and a goals-against tally of ten is the best in the league. The loss of holding midfielder Aurimas Kucys, who is out with cruciate ligament damage, could prove disruptive though, while precocious winger Donatas Petrauskas is also sidelined.
But Ekranas coach Virginijus Liubšys is determined his team will keep their shape. "Our strength is our team play and combinations. We have to dominate possession and dictate the game," he said. "It's important not only to win, but also not to concede. It's going to be very difficult."
Liubšys will doubtless take heart from last season, when Ekranas advanced beyond the UEFA Cup first qualifying round for the first time, defeating F91 Dudelange. Simultaneously, Cork were enjoying a historic European run of their own, with victories against Malmö FF and NEC Nijmegen making them the first Irish club in 25 years to progress beyond the second round of a UEFA competition.
Their UEFA Intertoto Cup exploits eventually ended against France's FC Nantes Atlantique but it was domestic defeats that disappointed more. "We were knocked out of the FAI Cup and also dropped points in the league," midfielder Billy Woods recalled. "We can't let that happen again this year."
Cork visit Panevezys on the back of a ten-match unbeaten sequence, and success against Bohemian FC on Friday helped maintain a six-point advantage at the Irish Premier Division summit. "We're having a good season," Woods continued. "We hope to beat Ekranas, but being realistic we're not going to win the UEFA Cup, while we do have a chance of winning the league at home. Still, we want to do well in Europe." Unfortunately for Cork, so do Ekranas.