6 lip 2011

Europe, here we go

Despite Jagiellonia’s start last week, most of Polish clubs are looking forward to their challenges in European cups as the hopes are once again high that Wisła Krakow will breakthrough to Champions League and others will sustain good form in the Europa League after performances of Lech Poznan last season. Year ago I tried to predict what may happen with Polish clubs, Lech, Wisła, Ruch and Jagiellonia, and more or less got it right, maybe the biggest low for me was that, even that I wrote about Wisła’s problems, I never thought they will embarrass themselves against Qarabagh Agdam.

I will not make the same mistake twice but that doesn’t necessarily means that  predictions wouldn’t make sense. I’m late as Jagiellonia already have beaten narrowly Irtysh Pavlodar at home thanks to a single goal from Tomasz Frankowski but there are three other teams as well competing in Europe and just before revenge of club from Białystok there is a space for analysis, even so dependable on draw of each round in UEFA’s both prime competitions. Europe, here we go.

Let’s start with Jagiellonia, as they are already in the middle of the battle. As I said, the advantage is narrow and may be cancelled by a single goal from Irtysh, especially as they are making a very long trip to Pavlodar, city that saw its club fighting for the final of Asian Champions League just ten years ago. But Jagiellonia has to get this 3500 kilometers long trip out of their heads and just do what they did in the very first leg. Their rivals didn’t get a sniff all game and Grzegorz Sandomierski looked bored in his goal but Jagiellonia’s problem were shown at the other end of the pitch.

They needed more than twenty chances and eighty minutes to finally broke the deadlock and get something out of home tie. Neat through pass was something they were looking for all game long, unfortunately deciding too often to shoot from the distance, from clearly unprepared positions. If they decide to once again attack their rivals rather than wait for their chance, I have no worries that long trip will be just a memory, not even a bad one. But what then? Travel to Rustavi in Georgia is very possible and once again they will be favorites, especially as Probierz is still strengthening his side. He made wise transfers of Cetković (Jagiellonia’s contacts in Balkans area are very good), Plizga and Bartczak but biggest achievement will be making Sandomierski stay. Swansea seems still interested though… If the good trend of buying players and making Jagiellonia play attacking football will be sustained in Białystok, there may survive much longer than last year in Europa League.

Over to Polish champions, Wisła Krakow, who start their adventure next week in Riga against Skonto, Latvian champions. Rival is unknown but it’s quite obvious that anything from two wins for Polish side will be regarded as surprise, not nice in here. Robert Maaskant is preparing his team that lost to Rapid Bucharest in their latest control game but got rather good results before and reports say that even that loss wasn’t as significant as the result suggests. At this moment, more than two weeks before Ekstraklasa kicks-off, it is almost impossible to judge on them but at least we can see that Wisla’s transfer activity has taken a good direction.

Despite losing on Cikos and Sivakov, they signed players that, according to Stan Valckx, Wisla’s sports director, are capable of making a difference straight away. Iliev, despite nearing to end of his career is very close to the starting eleven, Lamey’s place at right-back is certain and only doubt about it is how he will look after losing last season on sitting on the bench. Gervasio Nunez and Dudu Biton were signed as covers for Melikson and Genkov respectively, while there are news that Junior Diaz is close to the return to his old club in Krakow. Certainly, after beating Skonto Riga challenges will get harder and harder but, as ever, Polish champions are not getting weaker but stronger and maybe just this news make me optimistic before their start in Champions League. They face the biggest challenge of all – make everyone forget that no Polish club made it to the group stage of this competition for almost fifteen years now.

Śląsk Wroclaw also starts their adventure in Europa League next week, against Dundee United at home in a ridiculously early game (4:45 PM on Thursday!). And this is much awaited draw for Orest Lenczyk’s team as they were looking for their chance in Europe for twenty-four years! Good thing had happened in Wroclaw after the draw – most of the team stayed in the club, no one valuable left so far, notably Marian Kelemen was convinced to signed extended contract, while transfers were made to Śląsk. Johan Voskamp from Sparta Rotterdam will give more options up front, Mateusz Cetnarski will give some competition to captain Sebastian Mila, although may be tried in a role alongside him, Dariusz Pietrasiak and Marek Wasiluk are those who will be covers at the back. Everything seems to be ready in Wroclaw for Dundee to come…

…but it’s very hard to judge on the tie, the most interesting in early rounds for fans from Poland. Some say that even third team from Scotland is too much for Polish vice-champions, especially as the tempo in theirs Premier League is much higher and even obvious problems with squad in Dundee will not cancel the gap. Others say that third team from Scotland doesn’t differ much from top teams in Poland and recent results of Śląsk, beating four times strong rivals from Balkans in test games, give hope that this will be even tie, depending on how good one and other defences are. If they get through Dundee United, all depends on draw but they will be in good position to play at least two more rounds. Limits of the team are clear and even transfers made this summer won’t hide it but tactically they may be ready to challenge stronger teams that Dundee United. Just may.

And, finally, Legia Warszawa. Although everyone in the club said that last season was not as big nightmare as media created it, we all know that they were very, very, very fortunate to finish third with eleven defeats in thirty games. Winning Polish Cup was very pleasing for the owners but all the fuss about changing manager after and before last match in 10/11 season. Maciej Skorża stayed in the job after all and get on tougher task – make this team way better than it was to match owners ambitions.

Signing of Danijel Ljuboja shows it the best. He is earning the most from players in Ekstraklasa (around half a million Euro for a season) and represents a group that never regarded Polish league as possible place to play in. Footballer of his CV and achievements (although in bigger scale still regarded as average at best) definitely is something new. But it’s not all about him, he was signed to give more options and class to Legia’s attack. More problems were at the back, where Legia had clearly issues with weak goalkeeper and uncertain defenders. Michał Żewłakow, proven international, although 35-year old, was signed after tough negotiations to give them more experience and calm in defence. But there is still place for further strengthens, especially in goal. Will they find a new one (Dusan Kuciak maybe?) before their adventure in Europa League starts? Much depends on this and recent transfers show that ambitions in Polish capital are high regarding their start in UEFA competition. I sincerely think, that if, and it’s a big if, Skorża finds solution to defence problems, Legia will and should get to the group stage. That’s the place for the club of its caliber, or the caliber owners want to create at Łazienkowska.

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