WITH a team underpinned by current and former Hearts players, Csaba Laszlo has Lithuania dreaming of a historic World Cup place in Brazil. Tonight’s Group G qualifier against Bosnia-Herzegovina in Zenica is pivotal to their hopes. Lithuania sit three points behind the Bosnians, who lead the section, and Laszlo knows he is facing his toughest test in charge of the Baltic nation.
Marius Zaliukas and Arvydas Novikovas are joined by ex-Tynecastle colleagues Deividas Cesnauskis, Linas Pilibaitis and Saulius Mikoliunas as the backbone of Laszlo’s Lithuania. Although Mikoliunas is suspended this evening, confidence is high within the group. Anyone who remembers Laszlo from his Hearts days knows he is never despondent. But, crucially, the people of Lithuania are endorsing his work. For the first time in a long time, Lithuanian fans accompanied players and officials on their charter flight to Bosnia on Sunday following victory away to Liechtenstein on Friday night.
The outcome of this evening’s encounter in Zenica will give a strong indication of just how far Lithuania have progressed under the eccentric Hungarian. Their first three qualifiers yielded a home draw against Slovakia, defeat in Greece and then the win over Liechtenstein. Winning in Vaduz inspired many who called for Laszlo’s predecessor, Raimondas Zutautas, to lose his job following a defeat and a draw against the minnow nation in Scotland’s Euro 2012 qualifying group.
Laszlo took time out from his preparations in Bosnia to speak to the Evening News about the steady progress Lithuania are making. Far from jumping on any World Cup 2014 bandwagon, he remains pragmatic, viewing the 2016 European Championship in France as a more realistic target. Yet he senses a priceless opportunity could open up if the Lithuanians avoid defeat tonight.
“Much depends on this game. If we can win, we are fully in the competition,” he said. “Four of our first five World Cup qualifiers are away from home, so next year all the teams must come to Vilnius. To play in Vilnius is very difficult for every country. If we can steal a point tonight, or maybe even three, I think we have a good chance to qualify. This is our third big game away. We need to have confidence against Bosnia and see what happens. I prepare my team to play with confidence. We can stay in the competition for the World Cup if we don’t lose this game. We got a draw against Slovakia and should have won, but taking a point from Slovakia is okay. Against Greece it was 0-0 at half-time but we made two mistakes in the second half and got punished. Taking three points away to Liechtenstein was very important because, in the European Championship qualifiers last year, Liechtenstein took four points from Lithuania. They won 2-0 at home and got a draw in Kaunas.
“Our team was under pressure on Friday and they had to handle the situation. I must compliment them because they had a good game and won 2-0. Now, against Bosnia, we can have confidence. Only one thing is wrong, I am without Edgaras Cesnauskis and Saulius Mikoliunas because they got yellow cards in Liechtenstein. Both players played very well against Liechtenstein and Cesnauskis scored both goals.
“Bosnia-Herzegovina are one of the favourites in the group. There has been huge development in their football over the last two years. They can beat any opponent in Europe on their day. I am confident that, with the right tactics, patience and confidence, maybe we can steal a point. Perhaps we could make a surprise.
“I am not a dreamer. I like to build a team which will be competitive in 2016 for the European Championship finals. I have put many young players on the field who did not play international football before. I think we are going the right way. Before, Lithuania did not score goals and did not get enough points. I think now we have some new, hungry players who like to move forward. It was time to change and that is what I did with the team.
“I am also realistic because you must see things with a clear eye and use your head to know how strong your team is. Lithuania lost against Liechtenstein last year and collected only five points in the European Championship qualifiers. I don’t think it is realistic to speak about the World Cup but in football everything is possible. If you use your confidence on the field, sometimes you can beat better quality in a one-off game.”
Relationships fostered at Hearts helped Laszlo secure his current job and gave him a headstart in terms of understanding the Lithuanian mentality. He also knew the majority of their international squad having coached some of them in Edinburgh. Stamping his authority took time, though. Laszlo had to use his powers of persuasion merely to secure his own office space at the Lithuanian Football Federation headquarters in Vilnius. “I knew I would not have daily work but, if you take your job seriously, being a national coach has more work behind the scenes than many people believe,” continued Laszlo. “I travel a lot to watch games involving Lithuanian players, I talk with the players and their clubs and I scout our opponents and analyse them. I use Skype and the internet to make sure the team has enough information, to communicate with them and prepare them before the squad meets up. This is not often appreciated by people who don’t know what a national coach does.
“I have my own office in Vilnius, which is actually very funny. When I became national coach I did not have an office and I asked ‘what’s going on?’ Now the federation understand me. I go to the federation at eight o’clock and in the beginning I worked until six in the evening. This was new for the people there but this is my style. If you are a hard worker and a focused worker, you can get good results. Hopefully this is just the beginning.
“I knew many of the Lithuanian players and the mentality of the players. I also knew the culture before I arrived in Lithuania and I knew which players were always in the team. It was good for me to meet the Lithuanian football people when I was at Hearts because you learn their mentality.”
Even before he was appointed at the start of the year, Laszlo had a mini-revolution in mind. It is still only in its infancy. “I only look at performance, not names. I told everybody they had to show me they wanted to play for Lithuania. Many of the stars who played before don’t play or sit on the bench now. Some of them are not invited because I watch them play in their clubs and if they don’t show a good performance I don’t call them. You cannot always have the same names. It is important to have people who are playing regularly. I have experience with national teams, this is the third country I have coached and I think I know what I am talking about.”
Csaba Laszlo always has plenty to talk about. Slowly, the Lithuanian people are listening.