It's been an intriguing half-season in Poland, and Michal Zachodny is here to tell you all about it. You lucky, lucky people.
The Polish league has never really been an attractive one to those in modern Western countries with their modern football. For years, the Ekstraklasa was known only for it's seismic corruption scandal (that has now been solved, hopefully), the few goalkeepers that made it to a better world and an international team that had their heyday in the 1970's and 1980s's. Were it not for the fact that Poland will co-host Euro 2012, you would, frankly, have little reason to pay any attention at all. But they are, you do, and since the games scheduled to see out 2010 have been postponed until February, it's time for a mid-season roundup.
The biggest surprise are the league leaders – Jagiellonia Białystok. Last year they won the Polish Cup, but finished in a disappointing eleventh place. That is somewhat misleading (they were only actually three points off 6th), but for that reason, they were not regarded amongst the favorites to make an impact on the league. But with a wise and ambitious man at the helm in Michał Probierz, they are now three points ahead of Poland's finest, whilst their summer deals have paid off, and then some. Tomasz Kupisz has proven that his talent deserved something more than a silent goodbye from Wigan Athletic; experienced striker Tomasz Frankowski and speedy winger Kamil Grosicki have contributed fourteen of Jagiellonia's twenty-two goals. Despite establishing an entertaining attacking approach, Probierz must make sure that his squad is of sufficient size to cope in the second half of the campaign.
There are a pair of big names three points behind Jagiellonia, in Legia and Wisła. Both started with big problems this season but as it turned out both found some form and should be looking forward to the resumption in February. Legia had a revolution in the squad before the season with many foreigners coming in but only a few (Manu, Vrdoljak) have made it to the first squad. Manager Maciej Skorża has made few mistakes on the pitch, and has also handled disciplinary flashpoints well. Miroslav Radović has been afforded a new lease of life just behind the striker (he was winger last year), and the appointment of Ivica Vrdoljak as captain was wise.
Wisła have had more problems despite a steadier summer - only their completely new defence was a mystery. But quick and unexpected exit from the Europa League pushed the board into dismissing Henryk Kasperczak and go Dutch – Sam Valckx was appointed as Sports Director, whilst Robert Maaskant became manager. He had tough start and a few dissenting voices emerged, but finally he made a mark on his new team with 4-0 win over Legia at the team's new home in Kraków – always guaranteed to make everyone happy.
Korona Kielce, GKS Bełchatów, Lechia Gdańsk and Górnik Zabrze are solid sides but not capable of achieving something more than the odd surprise result here and there. But Polonia Warszawa, 8th in the table and equal on points with Śląsk Wrocław, should be disappointed that their summer spree (initiated by the lofty ambitions of mad owner, Józef Wojciechowski) hasn't produced the requisite performances on the pitch. Despite a great start of the season under Jose Mari Bakero and a notable win in the Warszawa derby (3-0 over Legia) a defeat to Korona Kielce (the first of the season) was used as an excuse to sack the Spaniard and give a chance to Paweł Janas – only hired as Sports Director in the summer! The subsequent ten games have been entirely underwhelming, as Polonia have failed to even match the results from the first month of the season. Despite being the league's highest earner, Ebi Smolarek has been something of a flop, having been unable to lift his teammates with the expected performances. Only three goals from the ex-Borussia player, although Adrian Mierzejewski has caught the eye of experts and the national team manager, Franciszek Smuda.
But the biggest disappointment of this season has been champions Lech Poznań. Currently 11th, they sit eleven points behind Jagiellonia and have already notched up six defeats. Despite this horrible start (which even included a spell in the relegation zone), their European adventure has to be seen as an unqualified success. They failed to secure Champions League football but last Thursday's draw against Juventus in snowy Poznań secured qualification from a Europa League group that was viewed as an impossible task when the draw was made. But two managers paid the price for the poor results in the league – Artur Wichniarek terminated his contract after only a few months and Jacek Zieliński was sacked by the board, despite an impressive 4-1 win over Wisła. Jose Mari Bakero stepped in and team has improved but they have to play much better next year to make the dream of a comeback come true.
Equal on seventeen points and second from bottom sit three teams - Ruch Chorzów, Arka Gdynia and Polonia Bytom – there is no need for an expert to deduce that one them will go down in May. Only Arka has some future to look forward to and despite being an average side, they remain undefeated at home - but will that form be replicated the shiny new stadium that Arka is slated to move into in a few months time? Ruch Chorzów is struggling with finances and despite having some quality players in their squad (Janoszka, Grzyb) they will have to strengthen their squad shrewdly to give some options to Waldemar Fornalik, the manager. Polonia Bytom has probably the worst ground in the league with financial problems also being an issue in their case. Their only hope is Jan Urban, sacked from Legia last season and appointed when Jurij Szatałow left for Cracovia – but will his managerial skills be enough to secure survival?
A new stadium, over two million Euro spent on transfers, and a young, ambitious manager – Cracovia looked a happy place as the season kicked off. But fifteen games later they are last in the table with just eight points. Rafał Ulatowski is no longer manager, have been unable to secure any points. Not that his successor, Jurij Szatałow, has been much better – his only win came in the last game before the break, and a dramatic one it was too. 0-2 down with five minutes remaining, Cracovia somehow found the net three times to sink GKS Bełchatów. Most experts think that the current squad is not good enough to turn things around, and it certainly looks that way. Despite that, Saidi Ntibazonkiza has had a fine season and will surely attract more successful suitors if and when relegation is confirmed.
Now that you're caught up with events on the pitch, it's time to consider the big question: is this league improving, or is the Ekstraklasa treading water? Surely with new stadiums in most of the cities there must be a brighter future for the league, right? With still convinced that the opposite is the case, the Ekstraklasa is finally taking steps in right direction – better players are signed every year, (most) clubs are run by clever people and gates are rising rapidly. The standard of play is also getting better – teams are finally following tactical trends of European and world football, whilst the tempo of the game became much faster.
However, the biggest issues remain unsolved. The Polish season is very short, with only thirty games – providing next to no chance for younger players to be given opportunities in lesser matches – there simply aren't any. Also Polish clubs still lack what has become commonplace in Europe – academies, training grounds, and in some cases, stadiums of their own. This is changing (particularly with regard to stadiums) but not as quickly as it should be and we may soon reach a point where young players will be not good enough to attract fans to the shiny new venues.
What does the future hold? I can only be optimistic – Legia, Wisła and Lech all know what kind of mistakes have been made this season and the trio must improve during winter break to catch Jagiellonia. Michał Probierz' side must not look back at them and continue to do what they have been doing since the season started – playing attractive, attacking football and winning games in style and then… who knows, maybe they will win the league?
Lech’s run for glory may be an impressive one, especially with the money gained from their European adventure. At the bottom there is only one place left in the relegation battle with Cracovia going down almost for sure… But should we cross them out so quickly? Half of the season remains to either save their place in the Ekstraklasa or slip out of the top-flight. It looks certain now but you never know. It may also be interesting to observe how Polonia Warszawa handle the pressure from their owner. Surprises? Let me name a few – Lechia Gdańsk are improving whilst Śląsk Wrocław will resume the season on an eight-game unbeaten streak. Korona’s ambitions are also widening with a big-name sponsor expected to come onboard over the next few months.
Every time I’m asked what to expect from the Polish league I struggle to find a direct, definitive answer. When you are watching (or perhaps even attending) a game between top teams you might be treated to ninety minutes of mediocrity, whilst two clubs closer to the bottom will inevitably deliver a magnificent advert for the league. The Ekstraklasa is getting better (Lech’s results against Manchester City and Juventus Turin prove just that), and with Euro 2012 fast approaching this is the last chance for clubs to make an impact in European football, and provide hope of a better future to fans of the league everywhere.
If you would like to read more from Michal and get the latest updates from Poland, please visit the excellent Polish Football Scout.