Lech Poznań’s Dawid Kownacki
Photo: Przegląd Sportowy
With 22 rounds of the season gone the Ekstraklasa title race is as intriguing as it’s ever been. This year four teams are tussling it out at the top of the table with a mere five points separating Lechia Gdańsk, Jagiellonia Białystok, Legia Warsaw and Lech Poznań. The title race looks even tighter when you factor in the points divide which will come before the final seven game championship playoff round. Why is this season such a close race and what can we expect in the next couple of months?
The key factor in the free for all at the top of the table is the topsy-turvy form of the two sides with the biggest budgets in the league – Legia Warsaw and Lech Poznań. Legia Warsaw, the current champions of Poland, started the season in uncharacteristically poor form during the chaotic managerial stint of Albanian Besnik Hasi. When Hasi was sacked and current manager Jacek Magiera was hired Legia were thus languishing in 14th place – just three points off the bottom of the table. Since Magiera has been in charge Legia have been practically unstoppable, picking up 28 points from a possible 36 and scoring almost three goals a game. Their star player Vadis Odjidja-Ofoe has been especially spellbinding in the club’s renaissance, with some wonderfully acute passes and dominant performances. As a result Legia now sit in third, five points behind leaders Lechia Gdańsk.
Lech Poznań also started the season in underwhelming fashion; when they appointed Croatian Nenad Bjelica as coach in early September the club were in the lower reaches of the table. The club has however bounced back strongly under Bjelica and currently have the same number of points as Legia, picking up two points per game under their Croatian coach. Recently they have began to show the same attacking verve as their rivals from Warsaw with the 19 year old whizz-kid striker Dawid Kownacki suddenly hitting the kind of form that’s been expected of him over the last couple of seasons.
While the cats have been away, the mice have been rolling around in the cheese. Lechia Gdańsk and Jagiellonia Białystok have had superb seasons so far. Lechia, since the injection of German capital into the club in early 2014, have been one of the biggest disappointments in the league. Over the last couple of seasons the club have hired and fired a host of dud managers and made many rash signings. Things changed however when former Polish NT midfielder Piotr Nowak took the hotseat in January 2016. Nowak has steadied the ship in the club from the port city, stabilising the squad and halting Lechia’s reckless transfer policy. This season his attacking side have steadily acquired points – their most impressive performance being the 3-0 demolition of title rivals Jagiellonia Białystok on the 12th of February.
The last of the challengers, Jagiellonia Białystok have been a breath of fresh air in this year’s Ekstraklasa. The club from Poland’s North-East have far less resources than their title rivals but that hasn’t stopped them causing a ruckus. Led by their Estonian midfield maestro Konstantin Vassiljev the side have played with drive and determination to leave them just one point off the top spot. Jagiellonia seem 100% committed to fighting for the title – something underlined by their President Cezary Kulesza’s rejection of bids for their star players to steel them for the months ahead.
Despite all this it’s clear that Legia Warsaw, possessing by far and away the largest resources in the league, are the title favourites. Their progress towards the title may have been slowed however by their dealings in the winter transfer window. I speak here of the sale of their two main strikers – Nemanja Nikolić and Aleksandar Prijović who were devastating in the autumn in the league and in Europe. Legia’s transfer policy is to not stand in the way of star players when bids come in for them, this allows them to sign players who might not otherwise want to join the club. But in this case I’d argue they have considerably weakened the side going into the title run-in.
The strikers that Legia have been brought in are certainly not pulling up any trees. The Czech international Tomáš Necid has looked rather immobile and is having trouble fitting into their system and Daniel Chima Chukwu seems to be far off a debut. Legia’s striking issues look even more pronounced when you consider the excellent performance their striker Jarosław Niezgoda – loaned out to Ruch Chorzów – put on as Legia lost at home to the Ekstraklasa’s bottom side 3-1 on Sunday.
The title race in Poland is gearing up for an exciting conclusion. Legia should still come out on top once they have figured out their striking conundrum but Lech, Lechia and Jaga all have a decent chance in the coming months. It’s going to be fun to see how it finishes up.