There has been plenty of banter flying around between Hibs’ Lithuanian internationalists Vykintas Slivka and Deivydas Matulevicius and their Scottish team-mates Steven Whittaker and John McGinn ahead of Friday night’s World Cup qualifying match between the countries.
But today Slivka insisted the joking will be over when the teams line up in the LFF Stadionas in Vilnius, Gordon Strachan’s side intent on keeping their slim hopes of being at next summer’s finals in Russia alive while Lithuania will be hoping for the victory which would haul them back into the race.
Slivka played a key part in Lithuania’s surprise draw at Hampden earlier in the campaign, playing a one-two with Fiodor Cernych to allow the striker to beat goalkeeper David Marshall, giving his side a lead which they held until a last-minute equaliser from James McArthur. And now he is convinced Lithuania can go one better on their own plastic pitch, even although he stresses that under former Hearts striker Edgaras Jankauskas, their national side is very much in a transitional phase.
“Yeah, we’re pretty confident we can win,” insisted the Easter Road midfielder. “We prepare well for every game. We know what to expect after the game at Hampden. I set up our goal and I’m hoping to play a big part in this game.”
And if World Cup qualifying points are the primary objective, 22-year-old Slivka admitted he and Matulevicius want to return to Hibs’ East Mains training centre with the bragging rights.
The former Juventus midfielder said: “The banter and the jokes amongst the Hibs boys have been flying around already. If Lithuania win then we can come back and hold our heads high in the dressing-room.
“If Scotland win then it will be very bad for us. We won’t want to come back to that. It will be nice to play against John and Steven, it’s always nice to come up against players that you know. Those games are special, but I won’t kick them . . . I will kick the ball.”
While everyone accepts that England, with 14 points from their opening six matches in Group F, are overwhelming favourites to qualifying automatically with Slovakia and Slovenia leading the chasing nations, Slivka admitted that if Lithuania can’t defy the odds and claim a place in Russia then he’d love to see Scotland do so.
He said: “Yes, why not. This is my adopted home and if we are not going to be there, then of the teams in our group I would like to see Scotland qualify – but they have to beat us first to achieve that. It’s a big race for second place. Scotland, Slovenia and Slovakia are all good teams and something has to happen in every game. I genuinely don’t know who will grab second place.”
The synthetic pitch as LFF Stadionas, the home to FK Zalgiris Vilnius, has been a huge talking point in the build up to Friday’s clash, the first time Scotland will have played such a match on an artificial surface, leading Strachan to pencil in training sessions on a similar pitch to at least give them some experience of it.
Scotland captain Scott Brown, however, is adamant such pitches have no place at any level in the senior game even although Premiership clubs Kilmarnock and Hamilton already boast artificial surfaces.
Slivka, though, believes it won’t be a problem – at least as far as Lithuania are concerned. He said: “It is not an issue for us. Maybe for Scotland as it won’t be so easy for them. I wouldn’t say it is a big advantage for Lithuania. Maybe a slight one, but nothing much.”
Admitting it will be difficult for Lithuania to win their remaining four matches – they have Slovenia and Malta to follow after Friday before they wrap up their campaign with a home match against England – Slivka revealed his nation already have their eyes on making the finals of the next World Cup in Qatar.
He said: “Lithuania are in transition and we are in the process of developing our national team. We are a young team with a new manager. If we want to get to the World Cup we have to win every game and that will be quite tough. But if we don’t make it we are looking forward to building a team for the next campaign.”
Slivka, Matulevicius, Whittaker and McGinn went their separate ways after helping Hibs win a point against Dundee at Dens Park, a result the midfielder admitted was disappointing given the Easter Road side’s domination of a game in which Dark Blues goalkeeper Scott Bain was named man of the match, underlining head coach Neil Lennon’s assertion that his team had “bombarded” their opponents throughout the 90 minutes.
Slivka said: “It was disappointing not to get a victory. We had some great chances, we dominated the game and we were the better team. We have to be more cold and clinical in the last third.”
Football aside, Slivka revealed he is enjoying life in Edinburgh, the scorer of what proved to be the winning goal against Rangers at Ibrox adding: “It’s a nice city and Scotland is a nice country. I’m still in the process of settling into Scottish football, but I feel good. Scoring the winner against Rangers certainly didn’t do me any harm in that regard.”