Legia Warsaw: A close look at Lokeren’s opponent in the Europa League
It could quite easily be argued that Legia Warsaw did not deserve to take part in this year’s Europa League. Given their emphatic 6-1 aggregate victory against Celtic in the Champions League’s third qualifying round, the belief in many corners of the continent was that the Polish champions had more than enough about them to make that competition’s Group Stage instead.
Alas, it wasn’t to be. Bartosz Bereszyński’s four-minute substitute appearance proved enough for UEFA to hand Celtic a 3-0 walkover for the second leg, and the Scottish champions ultimately progressed on away goals with the scores level at four-apiece. Disappointingly for the Poles, the first leg had seen their captain Ivica Vrdoljak miss two penalties. If just one of them had been converted, Legia would have still progressed.
While Legia’s case received widespread coverage, both UEFA and the Court of Arbitration for Sport rejected their appeals, and the club were plunged into the Europa League. Poland’s 18-year wait for one of its clubs to reach the Champions League may now be extended for at least another 12 months, but after defeating Kazakh side FK Aktobe, confidence is high in the capital that Legia can put on a performance and progress from their Europa League group instead.
Though their tenth league title, which put them on the road to European competition, was won at a canter, it wasn’t a straightforward season as the records will suggest. After a dismal Europa League campaign, followed by their first Polish Cup elimination in over three years, coach Jan Urban was given his marching orders despite sitting top of the league table.
In his place, Legia’s board opted to turn to ex-Premier League star Henning Berg – a man with limited coaching experience. Having been ousted from the hot seat at his former club Blackburn, the Norwegian had been working as a scout for Norwich City when Legia came calling.
Understandably, skepticism of the ex-centre back’s appointment was rife. Many thought he would take time to settle into the role; time which Legia didn’t have if they wished to salvage something from the season. However they needn’t have worried, as they powered their way to their second successive title, picking up 38 points from 16 games after the winter break.
Away from their unbeaten European qualifying campaign, Legia’s start to their domestic season was mixed. With a large squad at his disposal, Berg has been able to rotate between their midweek continental jaunts and the weekend nitty-gritty of the Ekstraklasa. But with his strongest side saved for Europe; weaker elevens, consisting of fringe and youth players, tended to start in their early domestic games.
It was one of those weaker sides which lost to cup winners Zawisza Bydgoszcz in the season’s curtain-raising Supercup, and another which were defeated by promoted GKS Bełchatow a week later in their league opener. Five wins and a draw from their next seven games though, sees them up into second position, behind Wisła Kraków, heading into this week’s Europa League clash.
So it seems, Berg has managed to transform a team which, less than a year ago was looking though it had reached its peak. Even more impressive is the fact he has done so despite hardly delving into the transfer market at all. Only one their predicted starting eleven – Slovakian youngster Ondrej Duda – was signed by Berg, with many of the first team squad having spent at least a couple of years in the Polish capital.
The size of their squad also means that cover for injuries is, for the large part, not an issue. First choice right-back Bartosz Bereszyński and centre-back Iñaki Astíz will likely miss the visit of Lokeren on Thursday, but in Łukasz Broź and Dossa Junior they have more-than-competent replacements. At previous club Widzew Łódź, Broź was known for his attacking ability, and even finished the 2012/13 season as the club’s top scorer. Dossa Junior meanwhile has taken advantage of Astíz’s absence to cement his spot in the team alongside the impressive Jakub Rzeźniczak, even scoring a brace in Saturday’s league victory over Śląsk Wrocław.
Just a year ago, winger Jakub Kosecki was seen as one of Poland’s brightest talents, with his speed and trickery causing nightmares for defenders as well as attracting attention from clubs over Europe. But recently he has been mostly used as an impact sub, with Michał Żyro and Michał Kucharczyk firing on all cylinders.
After worries that Żyro’s development had stalled, under Berg he has gone from strength-to-strength. Some have now touted him as a future Polish star, with the club forced to slap a multi-million Euro price-tag on his head to ward off potential suitors from across Europe. While Kucharczyk possibly isn’t at the same level as his fellow winger, he is another who has been given a second opportunity at the club over the last twelve months, and has grasped it with both hands.
Up-front, the fact that the club’s two biggest strikers – Portuguese Orlando Sá and ex-Southampton man Marek Saganowski – are forced to settle for a spot on the bench, just goes to show how great of a job that attacking midfielders Duda and Miroslav Radović are doing.
19-year old Duda’s displays have earned him a place in the Slovakian U21 side, where he has been integral to their progression from a group containing both Netherlands and Scotland. Radović meanwhile ended last season as Legia’s top-scorer, and after applying for Polish citizenship last year, there were even calls for Adam Nawałka to call him into the Poland National Team.
Above all else, Berg’s brief for the season was to reach the Champions League. With their failure to do that down to off-the-pitch matters, those goals have been re-evaluated, with the board even more confident than ever in the Norwegian’s capabilities. They may have only been able to pick up three points from their six Europa League games last season, but Legia’s qualifying performances so far suggest that a repeat won’t be the case.
Despite being drawn from pot three, Legia will be confident of progressing from Group L. Trabzonspor – one of the teams who picked up six points against them last season – will be seen as their biggest challenge, but Legia will hold no fear. Metalist meanwhile only struggled past another Polish side, Ruch Chorzów, on penalties to qualify, and the Polish champions will see them as beatable.
As the unknown quantity in the group, the opener against Lokeren will present a true marker of where Legia stand in this group. A win in front of their own fans, as expected by most, will leave them confident of going on to achieve their goal of progressing to the next round. However, should they fail to achieve the three points, it could be the start of yet another campaign to forget.
After the realisation of what had happened against Celtic had begun to sink in, many Polish fans described the situation as “a nightmare”. Yet it will not have escaped their attention that the final of the competition to which they have eventually made their way to, the Europa League, takes place just over the other side of the River Wisła at Warsaw’s Stadion Narodowy.
If they are able to defy the odds and make it all the way to the competition’s climax, then UEFA’s decision will no longer be seen as a nightmare, but as the start of a fairy tale instead.
Kuciak – Broź, Rzeźniczak, Dossa Junior, Brzyski – Żyro, Jodłowiec, Vrdoljak, Kucharczyk – Duda, Radović.