League titles, European places and relegation spots will not be decided at the end of the 30-game regular season; however, the mid-table battle can have a huge bearing on where those plaudits and commiserations end up afer matchday 37 is completed. After 26 games last season, both Jagiellonia Białystok and Zagłębie Lubin found themselves at risk of missing out on a place in the top-eight; yet in the final two games of the season, they each picked up points against Legia Warsaw, which ultimately cost them the Polish championship.
With four rounds remaining before the league is split into two, six sides, theoretically, find themselves battling to creep into at least eighth position. The second of Piłka.uk’s three previews focuses on what could be the difference between sneaking into Europe, or falling into a relegation dogfight.
7. Lechia Gdańsk – 38 pts.
8. Jagiellonia Białystok – 37 pts.
9. Raków Częstochowa – 36 pts.
10. Wisła Płock – 36 pts.
11. Zagłębie Lubin – 33 pts.
12. Górnik Zabrze – 33 pts.
The bottom two of the mid-table group, Górnik Zabrze and Zagłębie Lubin, could have quite easily fallen into Part One of this preview. They each sit closer to Wisła Kraków in 13th-place than the sides above them, and could very easily be dragged into the relegation mix. However, as Zagłębie themselves learned during the 2016/17 season, even a five point advantage with four games remaining doesn’t guarantee you a top-eight place.
Górnik’s inconsistency has almost been a sight to behold. The Trójkolorowi have not strung two consecutive wins, nor back-to-back defeats, together all season, yet managed a spell of four consecutive 1-1 draws through October and early November. It is a failure to turn draws into victories which leaves Górnik floundering in the bottom half rather than battling for the top-four – their nine stalemates being the joint highest figure in the league.
An over-reliance on Spanish striker Igor Angulo could, perhaps, be a cause of their struggles? The 36-year-old netted at least 22 goals in each of his first two top-flight seasons, yet has so far this term managed just half of that figure. Fellow Spaniard Jesus Jimenez has contributed to the shortfall with ten of his own, but beyond them, eleven goals have been shared by eight players.
Still, Górnik’s six post-Christmas games have provided their biggest points return since their opening six games of the season, and with upcoming games against fellow top-eight-chasing Lechia Gdańsk and relegation fodder ŁKS Łódż, some may feel that they have an outside chance of sneaking into the top eight. Unfortunately, they’ll likely need to take points against local rivals Piast and leaders Legia, and also pick up a first away victory of the season, to confirm it.
On the other side of Silesia, Zagłębie’s poor early season form saw the dismissal of Dutch coach Ben van Dael, and immediately they responded by going on a four-game unbeaten run. That, unfortunately, is as good as it has been for the Miedziowi, as they too have suffered from a lack of consistency.
One thing they don’t lack, however, is entertainment value: eight of Zagłębie’s league games have seen at least four goals, whilst they have twice been involved in thrilling 4-4 draws this season. Such high-scoring games do make them the league’s third-highest goalscorers; but also mean they possess the third-worst defensive record, too.
Like Górnik, with just four games of the regular season left, Zagłębie will probably need maximum points to stand any chance of finishing in the top-eight. Havin earned just four from their autumn outings against Lech Poznań, Raków Częstochowa, Korona Kielce and and Pogoń Szczecin, it’s extremely unlikely they’ll do so.
Not quite there, but knocking on the door of the top half, both Raków Częstochowa and Wisła Płock have been two of the season’s underrated outfits. Both tipped to be battling the drop, the fact that they sit in 9th and 10th respectively speaks volumes about their respective performances this season.
Wisła’s start to the season was unsettling: their coach, Leszek Ojrzyński, missed the first two games of the season, serving a suspension carried over from the previous campaign, before resigning his post suddenly, citing personal issues. Temporary coach Patryk Kniat began to turn the boat around, before Radosław Sobolewski took up his first permanent senior coaching role, and won six of his first seven games in charge, and temporarily positioned them at the top of the table.
Since then, though, the Nafciarze’s form has dipped dramatically. On average, in their thirteen outings since, they have collected less than one point per game, and look likely to miss out on a first European campaign in fourteen years, as a result.
Former Legia and Hellas Verona midfielder Dominik Furman is undoubtedly Wisła’s key player. The 27-year-old has been directly involved in more than a third of the club’s 32 goals this campaign and has yet to miss a minute of league football this campaign. Without an out-and-out goalscoring striker, the majoirty of Wisła’s goals have come through their midfield, and without Furman quickly regaining his form after the extended break, they may struggle to sneak into 8th place.
Raków’s first season back in the Ekstraklasa, after a 21-year absence, has been a topsy-turvy one; and they have both more wins and more losses than anyone in this mid-table bunch. But gradually, over the course of the season, victories have become more regular than defeats, and a steady climb up the table has begun.
Despite the slow start (seven defeats from their opening ten games), Raków kept their faith in Marek Papszun – the coach who got them promoted comfortably last season – and it has now started to pay dividends. They’ve also begun to make a temporary fortress of their adopted home in Bełchatów, having not lost there since a 2-1 reverse to Wisła Płock in September.
The Czerwono-niebiescy’s showing this season is even more impressive considering that they don’t really have any big name stars amongst their ranks. The most well-known amongst the squad include twice-capped Poland defender Jarosław Jach, on loan from Premier League side Crystal Palace; German-born Costa Rican frontman Felicio Brown-Forbes, who spent a year at Korona Kielce after spells in both Russia and the German lower tiers; and second-choice goalkeeper Michał Gliwa, who played in the top-flight with Polonia Warsaw, Zagłębie Lubin and Sandecja Nowy Sącz.
Arguably the underdogs in the race for a top-eight spot, with three of their four games against sides closer to the bottom, it would be a brave man who bet against them making it to the Championship group.
Given previous results against their final four regular season opponents, 7th-placed Lechia Gdańsk won’t be entirely confident of maintaining their current position come the start of the Ekstraklasa’s second phase. A repeat of the autumn defeats to Cracovia and Pogoń Szczecin, and draws with Górnik and great rivals Arka Gdynia, would undoubtedly see the Biało-zielone slip to a bottom-half finish for the second time in three seasons.
That would not be good enough for this Lechia side, despite their off-the-field distractions. The contract disputes with experienced midfielders Daniel Łukasik, Sławomir Peszko and Rafał Wolski, and striker Artur Sobiech, resulted in all four leaving the club prematurely, and undoubtedly would have caused disruption late last year, as the club suffered back-to-back 3-0 defeats against Raków and Jagiellonia. Since then, though, only defeats to Lech and Legia have truly stained their record.
But even with the loss of those four men, there is still plenty of experience within the Lechia squad. Veteran keeper Dusan Kuciak has lifted eight trophies in Poland, while Maciej Gajos, Łukasz Zwoliński, Jarosław Kubicki and Patryk Lipski all have more than 100 Ekstraklasa appearances to their name. None, though, can be considered as important as Flavio Paixao. Since following his brother, Marco, to Śląsk Wrocław in 2013, the Portuguese has established himself as one of the league’s star players. Even at the ripe age of 35, 10 goals in his last 11 starts have proven that he still has what it takes to perform at this level.
Regularly dark horses in the Ekstraklasa, Jagiellonia Białystok dismissed coach Ireneusz Mamrot in December, once it became apparent that they wouldn’t be able to build on their performances in previous seasons. Following league silver medals in both 2016-17 and 2017-18, a cup final defeat and a fifth-place finish last season meant that they narrowly missed out on a third successive European campaign. Already under pressure to deliver improvement, a poor ten-week spell starting in late September – with cup elimination to Cracovia, and league defeats against Pogoń Szczecin, Wisła Płock, Piast Gliwice, Raków Częstochowa and Zagłębie Lubin – was enough to force the Jaga board into action.
Despite a 3-0 win over Lechia under caretaker coach Rafał Grzyb, the rot quickly returned with three further defeats in four games – shipping ten goals in the process – whilst led by both Grzyb and then his permanent replacement Ivaylo Petev. Finally, though, the Bulgarian coach had begun to turn a corner, picking up seven points from three games against sides above them in the table, before Covid-19 brought the league to a halt.
Those last three games were mostly without their leading scorer, attacking midfielder Jesus Imaz – resigned to the bench after a period of sluggish form, having been an ever-present in the Jaga starting line-up until that point. If the extended rest allows the Spaniard to return to the level that earned him so many plaudits earlier in the season, the Źólto-czerwone could be a surprise contender to reach Europe once again.