After ten qualifying exits, Gintra Universitetas stunned AC Sparta Praha in their knockout bow. Rasa Imanalijeva and coach Rimantas Viktoravičius dream of a repeat.
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That Gintra Universitetas made it through the UEFA Women's Champions League qualifying round was a surprise; that they eliminated AC Sparta Praha to earn a last-16 tie with Brøndby IF was incredible.
The Siauliai-based club made history in August after getting through the qualifying group stage for the first time in 11 attempts. The Lithuanian champions, ranked 41 of 54 entrants, began by losing 3-1 to the experienced Apollon LFC but then beat Klaksvíkar ĺtrottarfelag 2-0 and KS Vllaznia 5-0.
Apollon still won the group but their fifth goal against Vllaznia, in added time, ensured Gintra finished as one of the two best runners-up. "It was an amazing feeling," Gintra captain Rasa Imanalijeva said. "It's magnificent when you have finally achieved something you always strive for."
However, knockout opponents Sparta had been round of 16 regulars and thrashed Gintra 8-0 when the teams met in 2006. But it was a different story this time as a 1-1 draw in Siauliai was followed by the same result in Prague and a dramatic victory on penalties.
Moldovan goalkeeper Ina Budestean was the hero with a string of saves in regular time and a vital stop in the shoot-out that kept Gintra alive, while Imanalijeva scored a goal and converted the winning spot kick.
"I don't think anyone expected that we could go this far, but matches like this are the reason you play football," Imanalijeva told UEFA.com. "It's something I'll remember for a long, long time."
In fact, Gintra were the only unseeded side to win in the round of 32 and coach Rimantas Viktoravičius was lost in euphoria, saying "we've done what seemed impossible".
Viktoravičius, who had overseen all ten previous Gintra campaigns, added: "I wouldn't say we had weaker teams before, but something was lacking. This young team has shown an enormous determination and worked hard all year for this. It‘s a great achievement just to be here, even if I feel there is still room for improvement."
Imanalijeva, in her seventh season at Gintra, went on: "I think over the years we have become more experienced and also more professional. There is also a great unity around the team and that was probably the '12th player'."
One of three teams that remain from qualifying, and fresh from a domestic title defence which produced 18 perfect wins and 128 unanswered goals, Gintra visit two-time semi-finalists Brøndby on Sunday before the home return three days later. While staying realistic, Imanalijeva hopes that a nothing-to-lose attitude could yet deliver another surprise.
"We will play with the aim of going further," she said. "We have to do our best and see where it takes us. It will be a great experience in any case."
"Brøndby are just one place above Sparta in the rankings, but I believe they are even better than that," added Viktoravičius. "We know how good football is in that region. They will be strong both physically and technically."