It was painted with the wide openness so enchanting to the neutrals. That 'it' was Group 7 of European Zone qualifying to the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™, a pool which kicked off with Austria, France, Romania and Serbia cast as its genuine contenders to advance on to the grandest stage in international football.
The consensus was that this candidacy did not involve Lithuania. Maximum points from two games later, however, the challenge of Jose Courceiro's side is certainly being taken seriously.
Tomas Danilevicius has played an indispensable role in this success, bullying the Romanian defence throughout Lithuania's stunning 3-0 win in Cluj, and then masterfully scoring both goals in a 2-0 reverse of Austria. FIFA.com caught up with the striker, his country's captain and most-capped player, ahead of their qualifiers away to Serbia and at home to Faroe Islands.
FIFA.com: Tomas, it seemed nobody expected Lithuania to take anything from a trip to Romania, but you won in style before beating Austria. How does it feel to see Lithuania on top of Group 7 after two matchdays? Tomas Danilevicius: It is a big surprise for us and for the whole of Europe. Romania and Austria are good teams, and France and Serbia have strong reputations. These teams were regarded as the contenders at the start, so we've surprised everybody. It feels great but we're not getting carried away, we have a lot of difficult games ahead.
What was the key to these results?
This group of players has spent four or five years together. We've grown a lot as a team during this time. We beat Ukraine at home and then won in Georgia in our final two EURO 2008 qualifiers, so this gave us confidence going into our World Cup qualifying campaign. We don't have a Ronaldinho, Henry or Cristiano Ronaldo, but we work hard together as a group and have a good blend of youth and experience.
How have the Lithuanian fans responded to the team's form?Basketball is very big in Lithuania. But these two wins have caused more and more people to take an interest in us. It's a great feeling to know we are making the people of Lithuania proud.
You've been in fine form recently. At 30 years of age, do you feel you're at your peak?
I hope my peak is still to come (laughs). I'm not sure if I'm at my best now, but I have the benefit of experience. I feel as though I still have another few years at the top in me, so I hope there is still time for improvement.
You've played in several European countries and are now based in the Italian Seire B. What would you like to achieve with Livorno and do you still have ambitions of playing for a big club in one of Europe's major championships?
Every player dreams of playing for a Milan, Juve, Manchester United or Chelsea. But I'm a realist and I prefer to chase more attainable goals. I'm happy at Livorno and I would love to help the club gain promotion into Serie A. This would be a dream come true.
Lithuania have another difficult fixture in Serbia on Saturday, followed by the visit of Faroe Islands. What do you expect from these two games?I'm only thinking about one game and that's against Serbia. I only take one game at a time because I feel it's dangerous to look past your next opponents. Serbia are a very strong team, one of the leading contenders in our group. Playing away will make it even more difficult for us, because Serbia are a very good side at home and will have a vibrant crowd behind them. We'll try to get a good result but know it will be tough.
*You were in tough qualifying groups for Germany 2006 and EURO 2008, and find yourselves in a tough pool again. You don't seem to get much luck in this respect. *Yes, we always seem to end up in tough groups. It would be nice to have less difficult opponents, but I'm a firm believer that you make your own luck in football through your performances.
Coach Jose Courceiro recently quit his role at club level to concentrate on leading Lithuania to South Africa 2010. How much will this benefit the team?
He did a very good job with Kaunas, but he had to choose what was most important for him and Lithuania, so he ditched his job. This means he is exclusively focused on the national team, which can only be a good thing for us.
Finally, do you believe Lithuania can qualify for South Africa 2010?
It was mission impossible before we started! But we've made a perfect start and this has raised expectations. It would be a dream to qualify for the World Cup, but we must take one game at a time. We are keeping our feet firmly on the ground because we know the odds are against us.
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