Scots face familiar foes in shape of Hearts' aces

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The Independent Online

If Scotland's journey here yesterday acts as a metaphor for what the national side will face this evening in their Group B Euro 2008 qualifier against Lithuania, then they should fear the worst but leave relieved.

"Ladies and gentlemen, we have a problem with the electronics," were the first words that the pilot said to those travelling on the team plane. Later he warned: "Fasten your seatbelts, we're expecting turbulence as we come in."

In fact, the aircraft found the necessary spark to cruise into this former Soviet territory, and then the weather was no worse than timidly bumpy. And on arrival in this city, the most generous of welcomes was on hand, including a feast laid on by Vladimir Romanov, the eccentric Lithuanian multimillionaire who happens to own Heart of Midlothian.

That an assortment of Romanov's players will start for each side tonight in the rudimentary, 10,000-seat, S Darius & S Girenas Stadium is but a sub-plot. The state of the pitch was so poor that Uefa urged the Lithuanians, under threat of sanctions, to sort it out before tonight's match. Scottish officials were unhappy but hope the pitch will be "at the very least cut and rolled before kick-off".

The performances of Hearts' talismanic midfielder Paul Hartley, goalkeeper Craig Gordon and central defender Steven Pressley could be pivotal to the visitors' resistance. The midfield contributions of Hearts' Deividas Cesnauskis, Marius Zaliukas and Saulius Mikoliunas - all brought to Tynecastle by Romanov, who controls FC Kaunas - will influence the hosts' fortunes.

The main aim for Scotland's coach Walter Smith, he said yesterday, "is to try to get a consistency of performance, and as good a result as possible."

In the wake of Scotland's 6-0 demolition of the Faroe Islands, he used Lithuania's Group B 1-1 draw in Italy on Saturday as the prime example of why fans should be wary of overexpectation.

"The supporters expect a lot," he said. "Maybe they thought 'Lithuania, we should win that', and then after Saturday's result thought 'Uh-oh, it won't be so easy.' Actually, I never expected it to be easy. Lithuania are a good side."

Scotland have played them twice in Lithuania before and not won.

"We have Italy, France and Ukraine as the sides expected to contest our section, and the Faroe Islands expected to be bottom. But then ourselves, Lithuania and Georgia in the middle. We can't expect to win,"Smith said.

Everton's David Weir will again captain the side, in his 50th international appearance, and Smith is likely to revert from an attacking 4-3-3 to a "hit on the break" 3-5-1-1, with Rangers' Kris Boyd favourite to be dropped to the bench from the front line.

Lithuania (probable, 4-4-2): Karcemarkas (Dynamo Moscow); Dziaukstas (Saturn Ramenskoye), Skerla (Tom Tomsk), Stankevicius (Brescia), Zvirgzdauskas (Halmstad); Savenas (Ekranas Panevezys), Preiksaitis (Vetra Vilnius), Mikoliunas, Cesnauskis (both Hearts); Labukas (Zalgiris Vilnius), Danilevicius (AC Livorno).

Scotland (probable, 3-5-2): Gordon (Hearts); Weir (Everton), Pressley (Hearts), Caldwell (Celtic); Dailly (West Ham), Fletcher (Manchester United), Hartley (Hearts), Quashie (West Bromwich Albion), Naysmith (Everton); McFadden (Everton), Miller (Celtic).

Referee: V Hrinak (Slovakia).

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