It seems almost a lifetime ago that, with cases of the novel Coronavirus beginning to spread across Poland, Górnik Zabrze refused to make their journey to face ŁKS Łódź, kickstarting the postponement of the Ekstraklasa. Now, with ten weeks having passed, Polish clubs are finally preparing to once again kick a ball in anger.
Just four rounds of the regular season remain in Poland, before the league splits into two, and a further seven matchdays take place to decide the final standings. Now planned to begin in late June, eight teams will commence battle for the title and three European spots, while the remaining eight will fight to avoid the drop to the second tier – this year seeing three sides fall, as opposed to the two seen in previous seasons.
As a look ahead to the big return on 29th March, the first of Piłka.uk’s three previews focuses on the battle at the bottom of the table.
13. Wisła Kraków – 31 pts.
14. Korona Kielce – 26 pts.
15. Arka Gdynia – 25 pts.
16. ŁKS Łódź – 20 pts.
While Piast Gliwice’s title win last season was reminiscent of Leicester City’s incredible 2015/16 campaign in the Premier League, basement club ŁKS Łódź will be hoping to emulate the English club’s 2014/15 season, which saw them win seven and draw two of their final eleven games to secure top-flight survival against all odds. A similar twenty-three-point haul would likely see the Rycerze Wiosny survive for a second successive Ekstraklasa campaign, and would undoubtedly become the greatest escape in Polish football history; however, at this point, there is little to suggest that the fate of the Łódzianins is anything other than the second tier.
The Winter transfer window undoubtedly did damage to ŁKS’s attack; Dani Ramirez and Rafał Kujawa, who between them accounted for half of the club’s 20 goals up until that point, were never properly replaced. In defence, though, the newly-signed trio of Maciej Dąbrowski, Tadej Vidmajer and Carlos Moros Gracia are steadily beginning to integrate themselves into the team, and are providing a more structured defensive unit.
The enforced break has also afforded the ŁKS board time to weigh up a number of their options; and at the start of May, the decision was made to dispense with Kazimierz Moskal – the coach that led them back into the Ekstraklasa after a seven-year absence. In his place, former Cracovia boss Wojciech Stawowy was thrusted, in a last-ditch attempt to restore some pride at Aleja Unii Lubelskiej. The moustachioed Stawowy was well-known during his time in Kraków for his unorthodox brand of offensive football. Maybe unorthodox methods are all that can save ŁKS? Maybe they are already planning ahead for next year?
Another of Stawowy’s former clubs, Arka Gdynia, also find themselves in the dreaded drop zone – although much closer to survival. Just two wins separate them from the safety of 13th place, and with a relatively good record aginst sides sitting around them, they may feel hopeful heading into the relegation round.
While Arka haven’t suffered masses of disruption to their squad throughout the season so far, on the bench is a different matter. Having changed head coach twice before the postponement, former captain Krysztof Sobieraj – who had yet to lead the team into an official match, having been appointed just days prior to their cancelled game against rivals Lechia – was replaced by former Jagiellonia coach Ireneusz Mamrot.
Mamrot has already highlighted what he believes to be Arka’s biggest barrier to survival – their relatively ineffective attack. Just 22 goals from their 26 games so far isn’t a pretty statistic, but it is made perhaps even worse when you consider that they have failed to score at all on 11 occasions. With only one recognised striker on the scoresheet for them this season, it isn’t a task to be taken lightly.
If you thought that Arka’s goalscoring record was bad, spare a thought for 14th-placed Korona Kielce. With a mere fifteen goals in their account this season, their fans have been able to celebrate hitting the back of the net just once every 2 hours and 36 minutes! Thirteen times, they haven’t been able to celebrate at all.
Arguably the only reason that Korona aren’t rooted to the bottom of the table is their defensive record; conceding just thirty times, and mustering ten clean sheets – eight of them within their last 13 outings. In fact, their back line has been breached fewer times than any club outside of the top six.
Like the two sides directly below, managerial changes have also been common in Kielce this term. Now on to their third permanent coach of the campaign – Maciej Bartoszek, who led the club to an impressive 5th-placed finish during the 2016/17 season, before being unceremoniously ditched for Italian Gino Lettieri – Korona will be hoping that the decisions in the boardroom will have good enough to ensure a 12th successive season in the top flight. If Bartoszek can get the best from his misfiring strikers, they’ll stand every chance.
Hovering above the drop zone, Wisła Kraków will aim to bring a tumultuous 12 months to a close in a positive manner, as they look to avoid a first relegation since 1994.
After the autumn round, the Biała Gwiazda were among the favourites for the drop. An inconsistent first eight games were followed immediately by ten successive league defeats leaving them three points adrift of ŁKS in 15th place, and six from safety. However Wisła have shown that a change in the dugout can provide positive results; after replacing Maciej Stolarczyk with Artur Skowronek, the 13-time Mistrz Polski have gone eight unbeaten, picking up 20 points and climbing out of the bottom three.
The experience within the Wisła squad is arguably unrivalled in the Ekstraklasa; Marcin Wasilewski, Paweł Brożek and, of course, Jakub Błaszczykowski, share almost 1,400 senior appearances and over 200 Poland caps between them. While Wasilewski and Brożek have played only a handful of minutes during their spring revival, captain Kuba has been instrumental in their resurgence, scoring four times and assisting twice. Full-back Maciej Sadlok – with almost 400 Ekstraklasa appearances of his own – has also been in top form, scoring once and assisting four time in the unbeaten streak.
Wisła’s biggest challenges come immediately after the resumption of the league, starting with an away trip to face 2nd-placed Piast Gliwice, before returning to Kraków to host leaders Legia Warsaw. If they can come through those two games relatively unscathed, you’d think they’ll have enough in their tank to survive.