It’s been a long and arduous Ekstraklasa season so far, starting all the way back on the 14th July when Lechia Gdańsk kicked it all off with a 2-0 away victory at Wisła Płock but it’s felt even longer as Polish clubs started their European (mis) adventure at the end of June. There have been a host of twist and turns, lots of managerial changes, clubs which have woefully under-performed and others who’ve exceeded all expectations. Unheralded players that have shone, and other players consigned to the rubbish dump. As the Ekstraklasa goes into its 7 week winter break, I’ll do my best to recap the season so far. First up the top half.
Starting at the top of the table, it’s been a rather up and down season for Legia Warsaw. With by far the biggest budget, a large playing squad and last year’s experience of the Champions League, most pundits predicted that Legia would run away with the league title. Although they take a two point lead into the winter break, they certainly haven’t impressed this season.
The start of their troubles was the loss of their key player Vadis Odjidja-Ofoe in pre-season plus the failure to make good signings. In first the Champions League and then the Europa League Qualifiers Legia went out with a whimper, playing far too slowly and without invention. This form carried over into the league as their former coach Jacek Magiera seemed unable to motivate the side. Since Romeo Jozak replaced Magiera in mid-September Legia have regained their poise. Jozak has got them playing effective and pragmatic football which has allowed them to rise from the lower reaches of the table to the very top, their standout performers being striker Jarosław Niezgoda and attacking midfielder Kasper Hämäläinen. Despite this Legia will need to strengthen in the transfer window as they’ve not been a fun watch this season.
It’s been a relatively similar story for the club sitting in second place Lech Poznań and the only club with the financial clout to come close to challenging Legia. In the summer Lech sold three players for good money Tomasz Kędziora, Dawid Kownacki and Jan Bednarek and their coach Nenad Bjelica brought in a host of new signings.
At the start of the season Lech looked good, playing quite free flowing football, at least in the league as Lech were knocked out of the Europa League qualifiers by Dutch side Utrecht. However after an excellent 3-0 win at home to Legia at the beginning of October, Lech stalled – not winning any of their next 5 league games. While their form has rebounded slightly before the winter break and they possess exciting players such as Darko Jevtić, very few people around the club are looking forward to the spring with optimism. Despite this, they remain Legia’s main challengers.
A very different kettle of fish meets us as we look at the team in third place – Górnik Zabrze. Although a couple of defeats at the end of the autumn round has slightly dampened their spirits, Górnik, who were promoted in 2016-7, have been the revelation of the season in the Ekstraklasa. Playing an intelligent brand of quick, counter-attacking football and hunting in packs Górnik have been exhilarating to watch. The wand like left foot of Rafał Kurzawa who recently got his first Poland cap has meant that Górnik score a huge amount of goals from set-pieces.
But what has been even more exciting about Górnik is that they have broken the mould in Poland. A lot of Polish sides give high contracts to foreign players of dubious quality, instead Górnik and their intelligent, ambitious coach Marcin Brosz are overwhelmingly young (with the average age of their first eleven only 24 years old) and Polish. They’ve also been cheered on by sell-out crowds at their recently renovated stadium so the whole atmosphere around the famous old club has been excellent. Recently it does look like clubs have started to figure them out, and their lack of squad-depth is worrying but Górnik should be proud of what they’ve achieved so far.
In 4th place and, just like Lech and Górnik, only two points behind the leaders Legia, are the club from Poland’s North-East Jagiellonia Białystok. In the summer Jaga lost their talismanic coach Michał Probierz who moved to fellow Ekstraklasa side Cracovia. In his place was appointed Ireneusz Mamrot from 2nd tier side Chrobry Głogów. Many commentators didn’t give Mamrot much of a chance as Probierz had left such a mark on the club and they had finished as runners-up in 2016-7.
Despite these predictions on the whole Mamrot has done a very good job at Jagiellonia. Many expected that there would be a firesale after Probierz left but, although the club lost Konstantin Vassiljev and Jacek Góralski a lot of the players who were key to what Jaga did last season stayed around. Although Jaga have not been that consistent, they still present a strong counter-attacking threat with the pace of Arvydas Novikovas and Przemysław Frankowski. Many people believe that the exciting attacker Fiodor Černych will leave in the winter but Jagiellonia have the players to make the European places once more.
In terms of other sides occupying the top half of the table, leading the way in 5th is Zagłębie Lubin. Zagłębie have had a rather up and down season. They started the season well, playing enterprising attacking football and seemed to be a potential title challenger but then their form started to dip, leading to the sacking of their long-term (by Polish standards) coach Piotr Stokowiec who has been replaced with the managerial rookie and former Polish national team player Mariusz Lewandowski. Since Stokowiec’s sacking Zagłębie’s form has turned around and they’re only 6 points off the top going into the break.
The key player for Zagłębie has been the red-hot striker Jakub Świerczok. Świerczok was noticed as a talent at a young age and scored a lot of goals for Polonia Bytom in the 2nd tier in 2010-11 and then went on to try his luck in Germany. He failed there amid rumours of attitude problems and has only really come back to the attention of the national media this season. Świerczok has scored a remarkable 16 league goals in 21 games in 2017-8, including two hat-tricks in consecutive matches. He can score with both feet, with his head, is quick and strong and like Kurzawa has made his debut for the national team recently. With Świerczok in the side Zagłębie have a chance of getting into Europe.
In 6th place are another one of the positive stories of the season so far, Arka Gdynia. Arka surprised everyone by beating heavily favoured Lech in the final of the Polish Cup last season and gave a good account of themselves in the Europa League qualifiers, only narrowly going out to Danish side FC Midtjylland. Arka, under coach Leszek Ojrzyński might not be the most exciting team to watch (their game is mostly based on long balls and set pieces) but their attitude is excellent and Ojrzyński has done a very good job of rotating the squad.
Never an easy side to play against Arka have surpassed expectations to be quite comfortably ensconced in the top half of the table. They also possess one of the feel-good stories of the Polish league in terms of the form of their diminutive, but also excellent in the air, striker Rafał Siemaszko. Arka are also still in the Polish Cup, and they have a semi-final tie against Korona Kielce to look forward to in the spring. That’s probably the best chance for Arka to get into Europe but if they continue to make things tough for other sides a place in the top 8 seems likely.
Even though they’re in 7th Korona Kielce have been perhaps the most exciting team, along with Górnik, to watch in the Ekstraklasa this season. Korona finished in 5th last time around but the summer was one of upheaval at the club. Due to the change of ownership popular coach Maciej Bartoszek was sacked and replaced by the Italian Gino Lettieri. Lettieri, someone who has mostly coached in the second and third tiers of the German league system, was subjected to a barrage of criticism and sneering from the Polish press who questioned his credentials.
Despite these issues, and a difficult start which almost led to a player mutiny at the club, Lettieri has done an excellent job. Realising that Polish players did not take as kindly as German players to discipline, Lettieri has relaxed his approach and the club’s form took off. Indeed between September and December they went on a 12 match unbeaten run in all competitions which saw them qualify for the Polish cup semi-finals and beat Legia Warsaw 3-2 in a pulsating game in late November. What’s more Korona play with an attacking abandon and energy which is wonderful to watch – their play characterised by their centre back Bartosz Rymaniak who at times plays as if he’s an attacking midfielder. Who knows what the winter holds for Korona but they’ve lit up a number of dismal autumn evenings for yours truly.
Rounding off the top half of the table is Wisła Kraków. Wisła have had a relatively topsy-turvy autumn round of the season under their now former coach Kiko Ramirez. The bright point bar none has been the form of their attacking midfielder Carlitos who has been one of the revelations of the season so far. Carlitos has scored 15 goals and made four assists but it’s not just that, his tricks, flicks and dummies have been a joy to behold. It’s imperative that the club keep him in the spring but this might be a tough ask with scouts heavily interested in taking him to a more lucrative league.
It’s difficult to speak anywhere near as positively about the rest of the club and team. Ramirez was known for playing relatively dire football, and was lacking in tactical and interpersonal intelligence so it wasn’t a surprise that he was sacked. Taking his place is the rather more worldly Joan Carillo who can speak the English that Ramirez couldn’t. In general in the autumn Wisła got more points than their play deserved. As a result it will be interesting to see Carillo’s moves in the transfer market and on the training pitch during the break but the European places will probably be just out of Wisła’s reach.
Stay tuned for the second installment where I dissect the bottom half of the table in the near future