The Ekstraklasa is an exciting league to cover, but often this excitement is linked to rivalry between the big clubs, and issues off the field, including fan boycotts and flamboyant flare displays, or frequent, nonsensical managerial changes. Every now and again however, a team comes along which succeeds against the odds, upsetting the hierarchy of the league. This season we’ve been lucky enough to have two such sides suprisingly making waves at the same time, Piast Gliwice and Cracovia – and it’s certainly made the Ekstraklasa a more interesting place.
In 2015-6 all four Polish sides which have played in Europe – Lech Poznań, Legia Warsaw, Śląsk Wrocław and Jagiellonia Białystok have stuggled in the league. Both Lech and Legia have sacked their managers, Śląsk Wrocław are bottom of the table and Jagiellonia are performing inconsistently in lower mid-table. Other clubs with relatively big budgets such as Wisła Kraków and Lechia Gdańsk have also sacked their managers and are underperforming. Piast and Cracovia have taken advantage of the chaos of established clubs and big spenders to be the Ekstraklasa’s standout clubs.
How have they done this? After finishing in 10th place in last season’s top flight and with a small budget, everyone predicted Piast Gliwice would struggle this term. Piast however now sit 5 points ahead of second place Legia – after leading the Warsaw club by ten points several weeks ago. Piast, in the summer, made a host of intelligent signings which immediately clicked on the pitch. Their key performers are all summer signings – Czechs and Slovaks brought in by their coach, former Czech national team midfielder, Radoslav Látal. Patrik Mráz provides assists, Kamil Vacek scores and sets up goals and striker Martin Nespor has already scored 8 league goals this season.
What’s even more impressive about Piast is the way they approach games – they are set up to attack in the right way. They play the ball on the floor, and are constantly seeking openings. Their attitude can also not be questioned: when things go wrong on the pitch, they do not retreat and play defensively – this approach could be seen as kamikaze at times – but it makes more entertaining spectacles.
Cracovia currently sit in third place in the table with 40 goals scored in their first 18 games of the season. Cracovia, like Piast, also have one of the smallest budgets in the Ekstraklasa but their success is not quite as surprising as the club from Gliwice, due to the impressive way that they ended the 2014-5 season. Still, coach Jacek Zieliński has got Cracovia playing enterprising, attacking football which has enthused fans. The Kraków club have been especially successful at home – with 5 straight victories and 20 goals scored in the process.
What is the secret of Cracovia’s success? The ace in the hole is Bartosz Kapustka, an 18 year old attacking midfielder who can score and assist and has already made a claim for a place in Poland’s Euro 2016 squad. Kapustka is key to Cracovia’s attacking intent, but up front the Pasy also possess a striker in Latvian Deniss Rakels who is in superb form – he has already scored 12 Ekstraklasa goals this season.
Can Piast and Cracovia continue to thrill Ekstraklasa audiences? There are unfortunately worrying signs on the horizon – Piast’s form has started to dip in recent weeks – and both sides will have problems holding onto their best players during the winter transfer window. Kapustka has been especially targeted by Europe’s big clubs – with Juventus, Borussia Dortmund and others supposedly interested. It is to be hoped that their squads won’t be decimated over the coming months because the Ekstraklasa will certainly be a poorer place if this does happen.