By Ryan Kelly
|SPOTLIGHT: FK EKRANAS
|FK Ekranas have been top dogs in Lithuania in recent times and are reigning A Lyga title holders but, this season, they are feeling pressure from Zalgiris and will have to fight hard to keep the trophy.
Off the field all is not well. The financial situation around club has led to key departures from the playing staff.
Snoras, the commercial bank which backed Ekranas, went bust in November, leading to unpaid wages across the club.
Andrius Velicka, Mantas Savenas, nicknamed 'the Boss', and Ramunas Radavicius have all left in recent days due to the ongoing crisis.
Velicka's absence will be keenly felt; in their last league encounter, against Suduva, he scored a memorable hat-trick.
In general, squad morale is low, likely to be one of the reasons why their form has been poor, and their defence has been uncharacteristically generous. They have won three of their last seven league games and also exited the cup at the hands of Zalgiris.
Valdas Urbonas, the Ekranas manager, has placed an added emphasis on defensive solidity since the departure of the key playing trio. They are likely to line up 4-4-2 after using this formation in recent friendly matches against Jagiellonia and Legia.
The Champions League Second Qualifying Round fixture against FK Ekranas on Tuesday represents a prime opportunity for Shamrock Rovers to turn their faltering season around. That is, according to Hoops boss Stephen Kenny, who believes that a competitive run in Europe can be the requisite catalyst to propel his wavering team on the domestic front.
"I do understand that we have to be winning and that expectations are high," Kenny told the Sunday Independent this week. "I think we need to go on a run of winning matches and that the Champions League game on Tuesday will be part of that."
By their own standards, it has been an utterly dismal season for the reigning Airtricity Premier Division champions. With 16 games played in the league, the Tallaght side lie in fourth place, 10 points behind league leaders Sligo Rovers. In the course of the season thus far, they have succumbed to several embarrassing defeats, conceding a surprising number of goals in the process. In addition to their fluctuating league form, they've also failed to defend their trophy in the Setanta Sports Cup.
Admittedly, it is only in its infancy, but the era of Stephen Kenny is already in stark contrast to the all-conquering foundation that was laid by Michael O'Neill and as such it has led fans and pundits alike to clamour for explanations. In the wake of the 4-0 defeat to Bohemians at the end of June, a section of the Hoops' support were calling for Kenny's resignation, while former St Patrick's Athletic board member Richie Sadlier expressed the view that the results dictated that the Dubliner simply had to go.
Despite the furore, however, Stephen Kenny is confident that his team will remedy their early season form, wistfully reminding the public that there are many games left to play.
The players themselves have also not shied away from criticism. When the Hoops gifted a last-minute equaliser to St Pat's in the league, midfielder Ronan Finn said that it wasn't acceptable from an experienced squad.
"Ninety per cent of the players have won a league,” he said. “We've been here before. For me, it's not good enough.”
Stephen Kenny and his side head into the Champions League tie on the back of yet another disappointing result, a 1-1 draw with crisis club Dundalk, but in FK Ekranas they are meeting a squad that is currently experiencing the uncertainty and upheaval that naturally accompanies financial instability, something which may work in the Hoops' favour.
Nevertheless, given the trend of Shamrock Rovers' season it seems premature for Kenny to pin his hopes on the outcome of this game. Indeed, a domestic resurgence should not be predicated on European success.