Ryan HubbardComment

A BAD ROMANCE: POLISH CLUBS AND EUROPEAN FOOTBALL

Ryan HubbardComment

"When you say it's going to happen now, just when exactly do you mean?"

In recent years, European Competitions haven't exactly really been a happy hunting-ground for Polish football clubs. In fact you have to go all the way back to 21st August 1996 to find the last instance of a Polish club emerging from the preliminary stages of Europe's most prestigious competition. Back then, it was Champions Widzew Łódz who managed a surprise 4-4 away goals victory against Danish champions Brondby IF, before crashing out of the group stages in a pool consisting of Steaua Bucharest, Atletico Madrid and eventual champions Borussia Dortmund.

In the fifteen years since Widzew's qualification a number of different clubs have became Champions of Poland, yet becoming one of Europe's elite 32 has eluded them all. ŁKS Łódz, Wisła Kraków, Polonia Warszawa, Legia Warszawa Lech Poznań and Zagłębie Lubin have all failed to get any further than the Third Qualifying Round, and only Lech's Europa League run to the third round last season has really registered Poland's participation on a continental level. But even Lech's Europa League challenge originally started as a Champions League push as they squeezed past Azeri League winners Inter Baku on penalties. The next round however, saw Sparta Praha advance with 1-0 victories both at home and away.

It's seemingly a very common occurrence for the Polish sides to fall in the earlier rounds of the Europa League too, and last year was no different. Ruch Chorzów had finished the previous season in third position, and managed to push past Kazakhstan's Shakter Karagandy in round one of the qualifying stages. The second round saw Ruch eventually struggle past Valetta of Malta on away goals; before an expected exit for Niebiescy in the third round after a 6-1 aggregate loss to Austria Vienna.

Much more was expected of Ekstraklasa runners-up Wisła Kraków, and they were handed an easy second-stage tie against Lithuania's Siauliau. 180 minutes - and 7 goals later - and The White Star had set up a third-round tie with Qarabag Agdam of Azerbaijan. But a 1-0 loss for Wisła in front of their home crowd, combined with a 3-2 loss in Agdam saw Poland's second elimination of the round.

And it wasn't long before Jagiellonia Białystok made it three. After winning the previous season's Puchar Polski, Jaga entered the competition in the Third Qualifying Round; but their participation lasted just 180 minutes when a 4-3 loss to Greek side Aris Thessaloniki saw them head back to Poland to concentrate on the Ekstraklasa.

Thanks to this concentration, Jagiellonia quickly shot to the top of the league in Autumn; however a very poor Spring round saw them drop quickly, but held on to claim a surprise fourth-placed finish. Jagiellonia then became the first Polish team in action in this year's Europa League. However, despite all expectations placed on Jaga to crush their Kazakhstani opponents Irtysh Pavlodar, they could only manage to score once in Białystok despite their clear domination. And during their trip to Kazakhstan, they were made to pay for their wastefulness as two goals before the break saw the former Asian Champions League semi-finalists cruise into the next round. Humiliation for Jagiellonia followed from both the public and the media, whilst rumours - which were later dismissed - began to circulate that coach Michal Probierz had been relieved of his position.

The second Europa League qualifying round sees Śląsk Wrocław back from a 24-year European exile, facing fourth-placed Scottish side Dundee United. In a quirky twist-of-fate, Dundee United were also Śląsk's European opponents back in the 1980/81 season. There saw current Śląsk boss Orest Lenczyk - in his first spell as coach - fall to a 7-2 aggregate defeat. However, Lenczyk now has a fantastic squad at his disposal and with a fully-fit squad - including new signings Johan Voskamp and Mateusz Cetnarski - there is no reason why he can't exorcise the demons of 1980 and progress beyond the lower reaches of the competition. And what better way to christen their new stadium than with a memorable European campaign?

After Thursday's first leg at their old Oporowska stadium, the Polish side hold a slight advantage to take to Scotland. Śląsk currently lead the tie 1-0 thanks to a goal from Dutchman Voskamp; and although there is a tough game ahead at Tannadice, Śląsk's momentum should be enough to set them up with a third-round tie against either Metalurg Skopje of Macedonia or Bulgaria's Lokomotiv Sofia.

Legia Warszawa are the third Polish entry into the Europa League, and join in at the third qualifying round after their victorious Puchar Polski campaign. Whilst lacking some of the bigger names that grace their Ekstraklasa counterparts, coach Maciej Skorza has managed to assemble a squad which is capable of competing with any team which they are pitted against; and the hostile atmosphere inside the new Army Stadium gives them a very good home advantage. However, after underachieving last season - coupled with a fairly poor pre-season and a tough trip to either Belarus or Turkey to face the winner of FC Minsk and Gaziantepspor - early exit from Europe looks possible, and could quite easily result in the dismissal of Skorza. Legia's bosses have already been canvassing for potential suitors, including Slovakian boss Vladimir Weiss; and their decision to stick with Skorza may have been more down to Weiss's decision to stay in Bratislava, rather than the Legia board's faith in the current boss.

The fourth and final Polish representatives in Europe are current title-holders Wisła Kraków. Despite a bad start in what many believe as the poorest Ekstraklasa competition in recent history, Wisła commanded the league after the winter break and their 13th league title never really looked in doubt.

Dutch coach Robert Maskaant has since invested in his squad, hoping to take the White Star through to the Champions League group stages for the first time. Despite losing Slovakian International defender Erik Cikos (rumours suggest that Wisła forgot to take up a purchasing clause in his loan contract) to Slovan Bratislava, Maskaant managed to tie-up Honduran defender Osman Chavez to a five-year deal; whilst bringing in Michael Lamey - a full-back deemed surplus to requirements by Sven Goran Eriksson at Leicester City - to replace Cikos.

The already strong midfield consisting of Israeli Maor Melikson, Piotr Małecki and Slovakian Andreas Kirm has been left practically untouched; whilst Serbian striker Ivica Iliev has been brought in to partner Bulgarian international Tsvetan Genkov, and should be more than a match for defences both in and away from the Ekstraklasa.

However, a very average showing from the White Star saw them sneak past Latvian champions Skonto Riga thanks to a 40th-minute own-goal. Wisła now return to the Henryk Reymana with a slender 1-goal lead, knowing that improvement is needed if they are to guarantee a third-qualifying round tie with Montenegro's FK Mogren or Bulgarian champions Litex Lovech.

There is no doubt that Wisła's main aim for the season will be to claim their 14th league title, which will equal the record already shared by Górnik Zabrze and Ruch Chorzów; however if Wisła do manage to break the Polish curse in the Champions League, the benefit to the country's footballing infrastructure ahead of Euro 2012 will be worth every złoty spent.

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