Opposition View: Zulte Waregem’s opponents Zawisza Bydgoszcz

When Zulte Waregem drew Zawisza Bydgoszcz, there was a collective cry of “Who?” among Belgian football fans. Fortunately, we have enlisted the help of Polish football expert, the very approachable Ryan Hubbard to give us a unique insight into just what lies in wait for Francky Dury’s men when they open their Europa League campaign this Thursday. Ryan writes for the superb EKSTRAKLASA Review website. He can also be followed on Twitter and is a very skilled artist to boot!  Dziękuję Ryan!

One-hundred-and-ninety-five teams enter the 2014/15 Europa League, each one harbouring a dream of lifting the famous trophy at Warsaw’s Stadion Narodowy. Whoever does emerge victorious on May 27th will become only the second club to lift silverware in Poland’s biggest stadium. Due to their Polish Cup victory just over two months ago, the first club – Zawisza Bydgoszcz – now enter European competition for the very first time.

Having only been promoted last summer, marking their first appearance in the top-flight for 17 years, Zawisza’s season was something of a shock. With some strong performances – including against champions Legia Warsaw, and previous winners Śląsk Wrocław and Wisła Kraków – the Blue-and-Blacks finished the regular season in the top-half, ensuring a place in the Ekstraklasa’s Championship Group for the final seven games.

Zawisza's fans have landed themselves in hot water at times. (Photo: Wikipedia)

Zawisza’s fans have landed themselves in hot water at times. (Photo: Wikipedia)

Although they tailed-off towards the end of the season, both the fact that they were assured of safety, and their impending cup final, ensured it was already to be Zawisza’s best ever campaign. With a victory on penalties over Zagłębie Lubin, a first major trophy eventually found its way to Bydgoszcz. But while success was beginning to come on the pitch, off of it Zawisza’s season was surrounded by problems.

During a league game against Jagiellonia Białystok in November, Zawisza supporters violently clashed with their opposition. Criticised by club owner Radosław Osuch for their actions, just one week later they joined their friends from ŁKS Łódź in attempting to attack the visiting fans from Widzew Łódź. With the injury to four police officers and damage to the stadium, Zawisza were forced to play their next game behind closed doors. In the weeks that followed over 50 stadium bans were handed out to the suspected hooligans; and with ticket prices increased as a deterrent to be troublemakers, the fans took the decision to stay away from the Zdzisław Krzyszkowiak Stadium. They are still yet to return.

While it didn’t have an effect on the players, the club began to suffer with dwindling gate receipts. Just 500 fans turned up to see their cup quarter-final against Górnik Zabrze, only doubling that number for their semi final a few weeks later. Upon reaching the final, the club was forced to pay the transport for thousands of families and students, just to ensure they had fans in Warsaw to witness their club’s greatest achievement.

After winning the Polish Cup, coach Ryszard Tarasiewicz decided to allow his contract with the club to expire, forcing Zawisza to look abroad. To replace him, like a number of their recent signings, the club looked to Portugal; and having been released from Braga after a disappointing five month spell, 48 year-old Portuguese boss Jorge Paixão was appointed. His first, and so far only game in charge came just last week, in the Polish Super Cup. A last-gasp 3-2 victory was however dampened by the fact that league champions Legia Warsaw had fielded a second-string mostly consisting of youth players.

Michal Maslowski was a key figure last season and will be a big miss through injury. (Photo: Wikipedia)

Michal Maslowski was a key figure last season and will be a big miss through injury. (Photo: Wikipedia)

Having had one of the best seasons of his career in Cyprus, 34-year old Portuguese striker Bernard Vasconcelos was brought to the club last summer as Tarasiewicz’s primary striker. With six goals in his first nine games, ‘Vasco’ quickly repaid the faith shown in him. Although he slowed down during the second half of the season, Zawisza were able to look elsewhere for their goals – most notably to attacking midfielder, and captain, Michał Masłowski. With ten goals in all competitions, ‘Masło’ finished as the club’s top scorer – although his season was curtailed by an injury which will also ensure he misses the start to this campaign. Armenian-Pole Vahar Gevorgyan has also chipped in with a number of goals, including the 90th minute strike which won them the Super Cup; while goalkeeper Wojciech Kaczmarek, defender Igor Lewczuk and midfielder Kamil Drygas won many plaudits with their excellent performances.

As well as the injury to Masłowski, defensive midfielder Hérold Goulon and ‘keeper Kaczmarek are also carrying injuries that will see them miss the trip to Belgium. Key full-back and cup-winning penalty hero Lewczuk could take part in European competition this week; but it would be the Champions League, having moved to Legia Warszawa in the summer. However new coach Paixão has sought replacements for his injured and departed stars: ex-Blackburn and Genk custodian Grzegorz Sandomierski, Portuguese defender Joshua Silva, and Brazilian striker Wágner all moving to Bydgoszcz over the summer break. In addition to the aforementioned Vasconcelos, Joshua Silva and Wágner, Zawisza now have another five Portuguese-speaking players, as well as the coach, on their books – seven of them taking to the field in last week’s curtain raiser.

To explain his decision to add a Portuguese-flavour to his club, owner Osuch explained that the conflict with supporters had aided his thought-process:

“Hispanics may find it easier to acclimatise in Bydgoszcz, because they do not understand everything that the hooligans are shouting at the players. It is sad; but when hiring new players, I have to take this into account.”

Going into the game, Zawisza will be massive underdogs – not only is the Polish league seen as significantly weaker than its Belgian counterpart, but Zawisza were seen by many to have overachieved last season, and will find it difficult to maintain their form. With a new team and a new coach, there are still many unknowns about Zawisza – something not helped by the fact that their biggest planned pre-season test effectively ended as narrow victory over a reserve team. However they only have to look back to last season, when Śląsk Wroclaw defeated Club Brugge, to see that Polish clubs can cause upsets on the continental stage. They may have been dealt a tough draw, but Zawisza have already shown over the past twelve months that they are full of surprises.

Possible Starting XI:

Grzegorz Sandomierski – Sebastian Ziajka, André Micael, Joshua Silva, Piotr Petasz – Luis Carlos, Paweł Strąk, Kamil Drygas, Jakub Wójcicki, Alvarinho – Bernardo Vasconcelos.

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