Photo: Bartek Syta
It couldn’t have started any worse. Legia Warsaw, Poland’s first representative in the Champions League group stage in 20 years, kicked off their grand adventure at home to Borussia Dortmund in mid-September. Instead of a gutsy performance Legia succumbed to a 6-0 thumping in such an embarrassing fashion that they sacked their manager – and the display was so dire that many Polish fans expected to watch further matches behind assembled living-room furniture. On top of the terrible result Legia hooligans made a fool of themselves in the stands, leading to the next home match vs Real Madrid to be played behind closed doors.
From these inauspicious beginnings Legia have dusted themselves off and under the calm leadership of their new coach and former player Jacek Magiera have improved in every subsequent Champions League game. At Sporting Lisbon away a mature defensive performance meant Legia only lost 2-0. After the match Magiera told the Polish press: ‘Our aim in the Champions League is as follows: First we need to score a goal, then get a draw and finally get a win.‘ Legia might have lost 5-1 in their next match at Real Madrid but they threatened Real’s backline, got the goal Magiera wanted and played some quite enterprising attacking football.
The side from the Polish capital’s breakthrough match was however at home to the Spanish giants Real in Warsaw. Legia had been given a real kick in the teeth by UEFA who forced them to play the match without fans due to the violence vs Borussia. When Legia went 2-0 down early in the game no-one gave them a hope in hell but Legia furiously came back, surprising their illustrious opponents, scoring three excellent goals via Vadis Odjidja-Ofoe, Miroslav Radović and Thibault Moulin. Indeed if it wasn’t for a goal five minutes time from Mateo Kovačić Legia would have come away with a famous victory.
Two weeks ago in Dortmund Legia took part in the highest scoring Champions League game ever – losing 8-4 in a frenetic and crazy match which swung one way and then the other. Legia’s defence was non-existent during the game and their goalkeeper Radosław Cierzniak was at fault for a number of the goals, but once more Legia showed they were not daunted by the occasion, throwing themselves forward at every occasion and scoring some great goals in the process.
All this meant Legia went in to the last match at home to Sporting Lisbon needing a win to qualify for the Europa League knockout stages, an achievement that no-one before the tournament had predicted. In years past Legia have choked on big occasions and many fans expected they would roll over against a Sporting Lisbon side with a much higher budget and European experience. Legia instead put in a great backs to the wall defensive performance, with their Polish international centre-back Michał Pazdan especially excelling, but also increasingly attacked with intent. The crucial goal game when their striker Aleksandar Prijović (who’s been excellent in the group stages) picked up the ball on the right, held off a Sporting defender and put in a lovely cross to Legia’s Brazilian midfielder Guilherme who bundled the ball home expertly. Despite constant Sporting pressure in the second half, Legia held on to continue their European adventure in the spring.
What does Legia’s achievement mean in the wider European football context? In a Champions League which is increasingly derided for being a closed shop, every result which is a little out of the ordinary should be cherished. In this way Legia’s qualification to the Europa League should be put alongside that of Bulgaria’s Ludogorets and Russia’s Rostov. Increasingly then qualification for the Europa League for the smaller Champions League representatives is a success. albeit perhaps a pyrrhic one in the face of the dominance of the football mega-rich.
Where does this all leave Polish football? The naysayers will claim that Legia’s achievement is bad for the Polish league as it will mean their continued financial dominance in years to come. While this argument certainly holds some water I’d argue that Legia’s success is good for Polish football in two ways. Firstly Legia are currently the only Polish club in Europe which means the country is relying on them to gain as many points as possible to improve their UEFA coefficient, it would take incredible myopia for people to not wish them well.
Secondly, and perhaps most importantly, Legia’s success will hopefully break down the psychological barriers that have prevented Polish clubs from achieving things on the highest stage. The Polish national team’s victory over Germany in 2014 marked a turning point in their fortunes, on and off the pitch, suddenly the national team was considered in a different light. Hopefully Legia’s Champions League peformances in 2016-7 have thrown down the gauntlet for other Polish clubs. They’ve shown that Polish clubs should show no fear in the face of the moneyed elite. Now others need to follow their lead.