Teams in the Ekstraklasa are ready to get back to business. Michal Zachodny, as ever, is across it all for IBWM
Is it a bit weird that the winter break in Polish football is longer than the summer one? I’m well aware that there’s no point in playing during the big freeze, I experienced that first hand during Śląsk Wroclaw’s last friendly when they played in -15 degrees, but Polish football suffers because of the break. Poles want more football and with only 30 league games per season and minimal involvement in domestic cups, there are definitely too few games to make any real progress and compete with clubs playing around 50 matches every year…
But enough of that rant, there are more interesting stories in Polish football to report on and a spring full of Ekstraklasa football ahead. What lies ahead for the rest of the Polish domestic season?
Let’s start with an exodus to Turkey. The Brożek twins moved from Wisła Krakow to Trabzonspor, Kamil Gorsicki choose Sivasspor as his new club and left the league leaders Jagiellonia Bialystok, Mariusz Pawełek and Marcin Robak left Wisla Krakow and Widzew Lodz respectively for Konyaspor, and Maciej Iwański ended his time with Legia Warszawa to play for Manisaspor. Big sums of money have been involved in most deals and behind every transfer? The same young and ambitious agent - Bartłomiej Bolek - who is responsible for turning Turkish eyes towards the Polish league for talent. Reaction in the Polish press has been predictably distraught, the exodus of the country’s top players seen as marking a new low for the league.
But in reality, Polish clubs are not getting stupider like most of their fans think, especially after seeing their teams let so many important players go. In fact, the trend of taking a large fee and then investing money in foreign players is bringing positive changes to the club’s long term plans. Over the years, countless times I’ve had to listen to rants that Polish footballers are overpaid, overpriced and behave like divas. Isn’t investing in much cheaper players of a class comparable to the ones sold for inflated fees, and finally building an infrastructure and spending funds on youth teams, ultimately the right thing to do?
Also, clubs are refusing to spend big money on transfer fees after finally cottoning on to the fact that they can sign footballers six months before their contract runs out. Paweł Buzała, Janusz Gol, Kamil Poźniak and several others were all involved in such transfers, both clubs involved in each deal agreeing that it’s better for everyone to make the transfer six months early. Several observers have noted that this at least shows an attitude more in line with the rest of European football.
Turkey is not only significant because of all the Polish players moving there in last year or so, but also because it’s the place most Polish clubs choose to prepare during the winter break. It has now come to the point where the league should consider playing at least one round of games in the country. Of course, wealthier clubs choose Spain or Italy - some like Cyprus - but two-thirds of Ekstraklasa at training camps in Turkey is impressive enough to consider the plan surely?
The winter break is not just about sunning yourself in warmer climes of course. Starting from the top of the table, Jagiellonia Bialystok looked to keep up their good form and Michal Probierz did everything he could to replace Kamil Grosicki in the side. The transfer of Bartłomiej Grzelak sounds particularly promising for Jaga fans, along with several names bought in to boost their defence. At Wisła Krakow, Dutch manager Robert Maaskant began to make his mark on the team. Losing the Brożek brothers must have hurt but the arrival of several new players, most of them foreign imports like Genkov, Melikson, Sivakov, Pareiko, and Jaliens, look at least promising before the season restarts despite some poor results in friendlies.
Legia’s pre-season has been eventful, several strange decisions made, conflicts between directors and management made public, and several panic signings made to redress a real depth in the squad. The big spenders were - once again - their city rivals Polonia and owner of the smaller (but older) Warszawa club didn’t want to waste his time on lengthy negotiations with players. After signing Theo Bos as manager, five players joined in quick succession with a goalkeeper still to come. Their new pair of central defenders looks interesting and Adam Kokoszka and Maciej Sadlok could be the future of the national team’s defense in the long term.
I know that 7 teams and 8 points separate Polish champions Lech Poznan from a place in the top 3 of the Ekstraklasa but let’s focus on Jose Mari Bakero’s team’s Europa League journey. Despite only having friendlies in the build up to the clash with Braga, they won the first leg thanks to Artjoms Rudnevs goal but once again the home and snowy conditions were a factor. Lech have made interesting transfers, mainly signing Rafał Murawski from Rubin Kazan and Vojo Ubiparip as cover for Rudnevs but they also decided to give a contract to Bartosz Ślusarski – unwanted and unimpressive at bottom club Cracovia. There is strong will in Poznan that Bakero can lead a great surge up the table and secure another European place next year.
But this may not be as easy as it looks especially as the clubs in their way have also made significant signings. Two Slovakians joined Górnik Zabrze, Gasparik and Jez, and their experience may be helpful in defence especially as that was the source of several dropped points in the first half of the season. Lechia Gdansk and their manager Tomasz Kafarski signed Armenian Hajrapetian and Croatian Vucko but are yet to convince fans they can do a job for the team. GKS Belchatow decided to make moves as cheaply as possible and the policy may pay dividends in the end - Buzała looked promising for Lechia this season, Sawala was the leader of Polonia Bytom, and Mysiak promised much for Pogon Szczecin. Korona Kielce’s best transfer will undoubtedly be Krzysztof Pilarz, a goalkeeper signed from Ruch Chorzow, but Estonian midfielder Sander Puri comes with high hopes of making a huge impact for his new manager Marcin Sasal.
While Śląsk Wroclaw only signed Rok Elsner, their focus was on the future with two young Brazilians arriving to make their way through the ranks in time. Zagłębie Lubin didn’t hesitate in the transfer market, doing well to keep most of their squad together and signing promising 19-year-old Latvian striker Deniss Rakels who has impressed in friendlies at their training camp.
The table is tight and despite a 9 point deficit to make up to avoid relegation, Cracovia had given themselves a chance by revolutionizing the squad - 8 players signed and 13 released (which says everything about their season so far). Questions remain however about whether Jurij Szatałow can make a team out of so much change.
Arka Gdynia, in the relegation spots by virtue of goal difference, didn’t win a single game during their winter preparations although they are hopeful that their league form will be much better, especially after moving to the new beautiful ground. Two foreign strikers, Junior Ross and Marcelo Moretto were signed to give Dariusz Pasieka’s team more of a chance to adding to their paltry 9 goals in the league so far. Ruch Chorzow looked for experienced players but money is tight and they refused to take risks on their survival with a gamble that might not come off. The financial gloom has also settled over Bytom where Polonia constantly struggle to make ends meet and after selling their best player, Sawala to Belchatow, only picked up a sprinkling of players unwanted by anyone else. Despite the poor position of Widzew Lodz, their fans are hoping that the promising signings of Finish midfielder Riku Riski and Lithuanian international Jurijs Zigajevs will give them one more season at Ekstraklasa.
Some are hoping that one of their signings will spur them on to glory, others are praying just for survival. Despite losing some stars this winter, which will hurt the league at least at the start of the second round, clubs have made some wise moves and in time the competition will improve. The table is tight enough to ensure several twists and turns before the season’s end and for anyone who hasn’t caught any of the Ekstraklasa so far, now’s the time to change that.
For the latest happenings in the world of Polish Football, follow Michal on Twitter @polishscout.