Zalgiris - St Patrick's Athletic preview: Saints expecting close encounter in Vilnius

The Airtricity Premier Division league leaders enter the first qualifying round with a full squad to choose from but remain wary of the threat posed by Marek Zub's side
Liam Buckley's St Patrick's Athletic currently sit at the top of the Airtricity Premier Division, but face a very different test when they face Lithuanian Cup winners Zalgiris in Vilnius on Thursday July 4.

Like the Saints, Zalgiris lead their domestic league, and are six points clear at the top of the A Lyga after 18 games. The artificial turf of the LFF Stadium will provide further difficulty to Pat's, but manager Liam Buckley is well aware of the challenges his side face. "They're a very technical side and play the ball on the ground," he told the club's official website. "The game will be played on an all-weather pitch so we'll have to adapt to that, and the conditions are expected to be hot and around the 20 degrees mark.

"We'll have to cope with all these factors. But we'll be looking to get through to the next round so getting a result to bring back to Richmond Park is important for us."

The Saints' recent European record is very impressive, reaching the third qualifying round the last three times they have entered the Europa League, and their hopes of repeating the feat are helped by the fact Buckley has a full-strength squad to choose from.

Pat's also signed Philly Hughes on loan from Shelbourne earlier in the week, and the striker is eligible to make his debut on Thursday evening. Midfielder Killian Brennan should also slot back into the starting XI after missing his side's 2-0 victory over Bray Wanderers through suspension.

Zalgiris midfielder Mantas Kuklys is expected to play a key role in the middle of the park for the hosts, and spoke confidently ahead of the first leg. "We will try to go as far as possible, everything is in our hands," Kuklys told Delfi Sportas. "We can definitely get through this round. Why play if you do not think you can win? They are a strong opponent, but you always have to believe in yourself."

Polish-born manager Marek Zub can call on a number of internationals, including Lithuanian defensive duo Vaidas Silenas and Egidijus Vaitkunas, while Ramunas Radavicius adds experience to the midfield. Former Rangers striker Andrius Velicka is a new signing at the club, but the player likely to cause Pat's the most problems is Polish attacker Kamil Bilinski, who has 13 goals in 16 games this season.

With both teams doing well in their respective domestic competitions, the tie should be a close affair, but Pat's defender Ger O'Brien believes the League of Ireland club can progress. "We kind of know the opposition we're going to be playing," O'Brien told the club's official website. "There's nothing really to overly fear, but certainly we won't be going over there thinking we're going to turn up and win. We know they're a good side."

"I wouldn't say they're packed full of internationals, but they're certainly seven or eight who have represented their countries. They obviously are decent footballers, but so are we so hopefully we can get a good result over there and bring them back to Richmond Park."