It’s been an incredibly bleak couple couple of years for Polish sides in European competitions. Legia Warsaw, way back in 2016-2017, were the last side to represent the country in a European group stage when they entertained (but were walloped a number of times) in the Champions League playing against Real Madrid, Borussia Dortmund and Sporting Lisbon.
Since then, Legia, the Polish club with by far the biggest budget and the best coefficient, have been beaten by the likes of Sheriff Tiraspol, Spartak Trnava and F91 Dudelange in qualifying. Other sides have also not helped, the champions of 2018-2019 Piast Gliwice were defeated in their two European qualifying ties by first Bate Borisov in the Champions League and then FC Riga in the Europa League. Before this season Poland had tumbled to 32nd place in the UEFA national rankings for clubs.
When the qualifiers for this season’s European group stages started in the middle of August, most people were very pessimistic about what lay in store. Hopes were pinned on Legia who many expected to at least make the Europa League groups after their Polish title win. For Piast Gliwice and Cracovia, any points picked up for the Polish coefficient were seen as a bonus while many hoped for a positive showing from Lech Poznań, with a slightly better team coefficient than Piast and Cracovia meaning they would be seeded in the first two Europa league qualifying rounds.
But no-one expected what happened next, and that something has woken many up from the comatose induced slumber of terrible result after terrible result in European football. But it’s more than that, Lech Poznań in August and September have brought back the smiles to Polish faces as their side has produced football of the quality not seen for many a year. Football of such gusto, such panache, such bravery that it makes you at times get out of your seat and shout ‘bravo!’ at the top of your voice. In short, they’ve made watching a Polish team in European competitions fun for the first time in what seems like forever.
Lech’s unlikely run to the Europa League group stage – their first group stage since 2015 – started in a relatively hum-drum fashion. Their opponents were the Latvian club Valmieras FK and for the first 60 minutes they struggled to break down a team that parked the bus and gave them very little space. After the breakthrough in the 60th minute though, Lech won with ease, without every looking that good, their newly acquired Swedish striker Mikael Ishak scoring two goals.
But it was in their second round qualifier at the Swedish club Hammarby IF where things began to really reach another level. Although Lech were seeded many believed that playing away in Sweden (Polish clubs normally do terribly against Swedish clubs), and on an artificial pitch would mark the end of their European run. In the first half the match was pretty even and Lech’s keeper Filip Bednarek had to make two or three good saves. Lech however grew into the game and 10 minutes into the second half their midfield playmaker Pedro Tiba put them ahead after a terrible defensive mistake. After that Lech took control and scored two lovely late goals via a pair of 18 year old academy graduates, winger Jakub Kamiński and attacking midfielder Filip Marchwiński.
In the next round Lech were again drawn away, this time against the seeded Cypriot club Apollon Limassol. Limassol have a much better recent pedigree than Lech, having played in the Europa League group stages four times in the last seven seasons. Polish sides have also done very badly against Cypriot sides in recent years (Legia were knocked out by Omonia Nicosia in this season’s Champions League for example).
Again Lech started the game rather slowly but grew into the contest as it went on. They gradually realised that they had more mobile and intelligent players than Apollon and they scored a brilliant goal just before half-time as Dani Ramirez chipped the ball over the defence to the on-running Pedro Tiba to finish. The second half was a Lech masterclass, full of intricate passes, lovely through balls and complete control. They totally toyed with Apollon and ran out 5-0 winners. Pedro Tiba was especially good in the game, illustrated most clearly in the 5th goal where he put two or three Apollon defenders on their rear ends as he walked the ball into the goal. The Apollon game was perhaps the best team performance I’ve seen since following Polish football back in 2012, and Tiba was totally unplayable.
But it wasn’t just Tiba, Ishak up front linked up seamlessly with the rest of the side, Kamiński made great runs from deep, Jakub Moder (just signed by Brighton) made clever passes, Dani Ramirez attacked with flair and intelligence, Tymoteusz Puchacz pushed on with energy and aggression from left-back. It was just wonderful to watch.
In the playoff round Lech drew the Belgian side Charleroi away from home. The buzz before the game was that it was a winnable game but that Charleroi were slight favourites. Having watched Lech’s previous games though, it was difficult not to be confident they would do it. Charleroi were certainly the best side Lech had played to this point, but the first half again was pretty even, although Charleroi had a number of good chances. Despite this, Lech played with no fear and attacked the Belgians whenever they could. In the 33rd minute they got the luck their adventure deserved when a Ramirez shot deflected off a Charleroi defender to hit the back of the net, then in the 41st minute a Puchacz long shot put Lech 2-0 up. Lech now were only 45 minutes away from glory.
In contrast to the second halves in their run to the playoff round, this one was very nervy. Charleroi won a penalty soon after half-time but it was saved by Bednarek, despite this the Belgians scored soon afterwards in the 55th minute. This all meant 35 minutes to hold on and some very nail-biting moments. After Lech’s defender L’ubomir Satka was sent off for a second yellow card in the 77th minute Charleroi were completely on top and Bednarek made a number of good saves. Lech didn’t just defend though and Kamiński had a chance to make it 3-1 towards the end of the game. Lech just did enough to hold on and against all odds make the Europa League group stage.
It was a wonderful run to the group stage for Lech, who will now play Rangers, Benfica and Standard Liège. Three clubs who are far more renowned than Lech, with more experience in Europe and in each game Lech will be considered the underdogs. But with a Lech playing like this, without fear, going for it no matter the conditions, it’s difficult not to think that they have an outside chance of making it through.
And if not, they’ve shown that, with the right attitude, Polish sides do not need to go into European ties with a massive chip on their shoulder, don’t need to go into games beaten before they’ve even set foot on the pitch. So many times in recent years, Polish sides have played in Europe almost with their tails between their legs, as if in a sulk, as if it was something they needed to do rather than wanted to do. Lech have quite simply brought the fun back to Polish football, and in the midst of a pandemic, I can’t think of anything better than that.