Currently coasting in Lithuania's top flight, Zalgiris are a side reinvigorated and they are hoping to set down a marker with Europa League success over St Patrick's Athletic
By Justas Kontrimas
After being threatened with bankruptcy, VMFD Zalgiris are now a financially stable club thanks to the contributions of fans as well as Vilma Venslovaitiene and Mindaugas Nikolicius, the former directors of SPL side Hearts, who together ensured the club's long-term future. Now equipped with a new academy, the Lithuanian side are hopeful that their new beginnings can be boosted by a strong showing in the Europa League, starting against St Patrick's Athletic.
The club are currently top of the A Lyga, with 44 points, ahead of Atlantas Klaipeda and 2012 champions Ekranas Panevezys. Prior to the season, Zalgiris were expected to challenge for the title and, moreover, the board also expected a strong performance in Uefa competition. Not surprisingly, fans also expect a lot from Zalgiris in Europe this season, especially after witnessing an almost perfect run in the league to date; 14 wins, two draws and only one defeat. Furthermore, Marek Zub's men have won seven of their last eight league matches. The club has not enjoyed a start like this since their title-winning campaign of 1998-99. Zalgiris also enjoyed a successful cup campaign, lifting the LFF cup for the seventh time when they defeated Siauliai on penalties in May.
Former Anzhi, Hearts and Rangers forward Andrius Velicka recently joined the club and was instrumental in the club's 1-0 victory over Atlantas at the weekend. The 34-year-old Lithuania international was brought to the club as back-up for Polish striker Kamil Bilinski. Despite the experienced addition of Velicka, Zalgiris may be forced to contend with the absence of Polish international Jakub Wilk, who is set to join Romanian club FC Vaslui, while Croatian midfielder Tomislav Pek was released by the club following a spate of injuries.
Kamil Bilinski will be a key player for the Lithuanian side as they prepare to face St Pat's. Bilinski has been a mainstay for the Green and Whites this season, scoring 13 goals in 16 appearances and has become an irreplaceable facet of the Zalgiris attack. Discovery of the season Mantas Kuklys will also pose a threat to the Saints. The 26-year-old has had an impressive season, scoring seven goals and and providing five assists from midfield. Only Wilk and Bilinski have demonstrated more efficiency during the current campaign.
Coach Zub, 48, has been in charge since August 2012 and is enjoying a fruitful start to his tenure. The Polish boss is not particularly prone to tactical experimentation and is expected to deploy a typical 4-1-2-3 formation in the forthcoming Europa League tie. Former Ekranas and current Lithuania winger Ramunas Radavicius should replace Wilk in his traditional left flank position as Bilinski spearheads the attacking trio.