Serbia - Lithuania
Stadion Crvena Zvezda - 11/10/08 - 20H15 (CET)
Couceiro thriving on single-mindedness
It was with some regret that Lithuania coach José Couceiro recently relinquished control at FBK Kaunus, putting an end to a brief, spectacular double life. At club level he orchestrated the elimination of UEFA Champions League group stage stalwarts Rangers FC in the second qualifying round and with the national side he notched stunning wins against Romania and Austria – yet something had to give.
The whole point of the 45-year-old swapping the Mediterranean for the Baltics was the Lithuanian national team, raising its stock and guiding them towards a shock place at the 2010 FIFA World Cup. Even if the twin role of managing a club side and coping with the demands of being an international coach had not proven so difficult, Couceiro would still have been aiming to narrow his focus. "My purpose has always been to promote Lithuanian football, restructure their youth system and help the national team succeed,"
confirmed the Portuguese. "Working conditions are not what they were 15 or 20 years ago. The demands put upon an international manager, especially given that I have no team of assistants, made it impossible to continue in both posts. Also, most of Lithuania's players perform in foreign leagues meaning I must travel a lot to watch them. Doing both jobs well became a physical impossibility."
Despite the drawbacks, Couceiro's work has been so good that he leaves Kaunus riding high in the domestic A Lyga while that 2-1 win against Rangers has been credited for putting some swagger into Lithuanian football. "When we eliminated Rangers there was a massive wave of optimism in our country which transferred directly to the national team,"
said Couceiro. "Suddenly it was possible to believe! Lithuania have a very interesting group of players but the main problem is that many don't command a first-team place with their clubs. Moreover, in this country, the winter means that young players stop playing in October and re-start in April, which makes developing them impossible – these are the challenges facing Lithuanian football."
Notwithstanding this constructively critical analysis, the fact remains that Couceiro's side have six points from two World Cup qualifiers after Group 7 wins in Romania (3-0) and against Austria (2-0) last month. Moreover, Couceiro's startling gains were achieved with a buccaneer strategy which looked high-risk but which achieved devastating results. "I come from a background of Mediterranean football and clearly I had to adapt to accept the national football culture in Lithuania,"
he explained. "But even if Lithuania does not have a history of football success it does have a very, very strong culture of winning in other team sports, notably basketball. I felt we could overhaul the tactical approach to international matches and the players would catch on quickly. So it proved.
"We adopted a 4-3-3 system based on our opponents' vulnerabilities and our own abilities,"
the former FC Porto and Portugal U21 coach continued. "The dominant structure had always been 4-4-2 and it was hard for teams to anticipate or react when we changed so radically. The single striker, two wingers and support from midfield all worked really well and this is why we have started so well. Nevertheless, I don't think Lithuania can control all their games in terms of possession and there is more development to do in terms of not losing the ball in danger areas."
Further progress can be assessed when Lithuania travel to Belgrade to take on Serbia on Saturday, and despite his side's strong start, Couceiro is not getting above himself. "France are the Group 7 favourites followed by Romania and Serbia. Right now we are pleased with our progress but realistic."
Squad list :
Zydrunas Karcemarskas (Dynamo Moscow), Paulius Grybauskas (Otelul Galati), Giedrius Arlauskis (Unirea Urziceni)
Marius Stankevicius (Sampdoria), Tomas Zvirgzdauskas (Halmstads BK), Marius Zaliukas (Hearts), Ignas Dedura (Spartak Moscow), Vidas Alunderis (Tavriya Simferopol), Arunas Klimavicius (Dynamo Moscow), Irmantas Zelmikas (Kaunas), Andrius Skerla (Jagiellonia Bialystok)
Deividas Semberas (CSKA Moscow), Mantas Savenas (Nosta Navotroick), Saulius Mikoliunas (Hearts), Audrius Ksanavicius (Hearts), Edgaras Cesnauskis (FK Moscow), Mindaugas Kalonas (Dublin Bohemians), Linas Pilibaitis (Kaunas), Tadas Papeckys (Gornik Zabrze)
Tomas Danilevicius (Livorno), Robertas Poskus (Bnei Sakhin), Andrius Velicka (Rangers), Edgaras Jankauskas (Skonta Riga)