VILNIUS - As the 2004 Lithuanian Premier League nears its end, Kaunas looks likely to finish first and retain the title. Having beaten FK Vilnius 2-0 on Oct. 3, Kaunas remains three points ahead of second-placed Atlantas and five points ahead of rivals Ekranas Panevezys with only five rounds of games remaining.
Of course, in theory any of the three top teams is still capable of clinching the league but only an idiot would bet against Kaunas, who will face Ekranas in the final game of the season in what promises to be a classic encounter. It might also be the game that decides the eventual league winner.
Atlantas Klaipeda has been something of a dark horse this season, but it literally threw away its chances of pulling off a shock title victory when it lost 4-0 to Vetra Vilnius on Oct. 3. Atlantas has also played two more games than both Kaunas and Ekranas.
If Kaunas does go on to win the league, it will be the club's sixth consecutive championship. It would also be the first title for the team's new coach, Valdas Ivanauskas, who was one of Lithuania's most famous players in the 1990s and a prominent striker for Hamburg SV in the German Bundesleague.
The 38-year-old, who led his former club Vetra Vilnius to a surprising third place finish in the league last season, only took over at Kaunas in September when former manager Senderis Girsovicius was given the sack. Somewhat strangely, Kaunas was dominating the league at the time but Girsovicius was nevertheless strongly criticized for playing "unimpressive" football.
Kaunas has won four out of five league games under Ivanauskas, as well as making the final of the Lithuanian Cup after beating Ivanauskas' former team Vetra Vilnius on penalties. Kaunas will face Atlantas Klaipeda in the final on Oct. 27.
Ekranas Panevezys hopes to experience a similar boost in the league's run-in after replacing its coach last week after a recent bad run of results. Virginijus Liubsys, who was the coach of the Lithuanian under-21 team, is the new man in charge. But he got off to a shaky start in his first game against bottom club Suduva Marijampole, which led 3-2 until the 89th minute. Liubsys' side somehow managed to turn the game around though and won 4-3.
Meanwhile at the bottom of the Premier League, Suduva Marijampole and FK Vilnius are battling it out to avoid coming bottom. But the losing side can take some comfort from the fact that it probably won't get relegated as the Lithuanian Football Federation is currently planning to expand the league to nine teams for next year's season. How comforting.