European success has brought a new set of pressures for Lithuanian side FBK Kaunas, and they have been left a little short-staffed ahead of their UEFA Cup first round tie against UC Sampdoria in Genoa tonight.
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The first leg in Italy may see Sampdoria defender Marius Stankevicius come up against some familiar faces from his days as a trainee at Kaunas, but with an enormous amount at stake for both clubs, pleasantries may be limited. The Lithuanian side came into Europe with limited expectations at the start, but are desperate to continue their adventure in the UEFA Cup group stage.
Kaunas created one of the sensations of the summer by eliminating Rangers FC in the UEFA Champions League second qualifying round, a result that raised high hopes among their fans. The club's main sponsor Vladimir Romanov was also said to be less than impressed when Kaunas then missed out on a UEFA Champions League group-stage place following a 4-0 aggregate loss against Aalborg BK.
Tempers flared late in the second leg of that tie, with both Mindaugas Grigalevičius and Linas Pilibaitis being dismissed, and they are suspended for the Sampdoria game along with Mindaugas Bagužis, who picked up a second yellow card against AaB. Adding to their difficulties, Kaunas have also been weakened by the departure of some key personnel for Heart of Midlothian FC, losing Slovakian goalkeeper Marián Kello, Polish holding midfielder Adrian Mrowiec and goalkeeping coach Arturas Ramoška to the Edinburgh outfit.
There has been some movement in the opposite direction, with Kestutis Ivaskevicius back in Kaunas after failing to settle at Hearts, while the club have signed Davidas Arlauskis from Romania's AFC Unirea Urziceni, though he is currently sidelined with injury. However, perhaps their biggest concern at the moment is Portuguese coach José Couceiro.
Having masterminded the win against Rangers days after his arrival in July, Couceiro quickly found himself taken on as Lithuanian national team coach, and wins against Romania and Austria in their opening FIFA World Cup qualifiers have led the 45-year-old to consider concentrating solely on international football. Eleven games remain until the end of the A Lyga season, with Kaunas trailing FK Ekranas by four points, although they have a game in hand. Their glorious story could yet have an unhappy ending.