A Second Bite of the Ekstraklasa Cherry!

 

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Piast Gliwice 1 v 2 Legia Warsaw (26.03.2014)

After a Super Sunday in Wroclaw it was time to head south to Gliwice for some good old Monday Night Football (MNF). It’s not just Sky that extend the football weekend for the benefit of the armchair fan; and what’s good enough for the Premier League has been taken onto a whole new level by the Ekstraklasa!

Each round of top flight fixtures in Poland are spread across a 4 day period spanning Friday to Monday. Matches are more often than not staggered across this period to ensure that every game is screened live across any given weekend. Absolutely spot on for those single polish football fans out there that prefer their football from a comfy sofa with a cold bottle of Tyskie; but if you happen to have a spouse then your relationship would be severely tested!

There’s clearly a place for MNF, unless you’re a diehard fan and it’s your team playing away, but luckily I was on day 3 and game 4 of my short tour of Poland and I selfishly welcomed this particular piece of fixture scheduling with open arms! Despite a fair bit of travelling over the last three days the Ekstraklasa’s attempt to suit the armchair supporter had made for a right good footballing adventure!

The final match of round 27 had thrown up Piast Gliwice v Legia Warsaw. Not one of the more established names in Polish football, but Piast Gliwice is a small multi sports club located in the industrial, but football rich corridor otherwise known as Upper Silesia. This region encompasses the cities of Bielsko Biala, Katowice, Chorzow, Zabrze and Gliwice, and also happens to be home to nearly a quarter of the current Ekstraklasa teams. This makes it an ideal region to base yourself in if you ever fancy getting out to Poland for a few games and a football weekend away.

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With 6 clubs located in fairly close proximity (Gornik Zarbze, Piast Gliwice, Ruch Chorzow and Podbeskidzie in the Ekstraklasa; and GKS Katowice in the I Liga; and Polonia Bytom in the II Liga) Upper Silesia is somewhat of a Polish football hot bed. All of the aforementioned clubs are separated by no more than a 35 minute train journey, the only exception being Podbeskidzie which is about a 50 minute train ride from Katowice.

imageUnfortunately (for me anyway!) the edge had been taken off this game as the Legia fans had been dealt a 6 month ban on travelling to away games by the Polish FA. This was after Legia fans had rioted and attacked the Jagiellonia fans in their own away section at the Pepsi Arena a month earlier. Aside from violent outbursts, the Zyleta are usually great value when it comes to creating an atmosphere at football, but tonight the away section remained eerily empty (see right).

Piast Gliwice made the kind of start they had probably dreamt of and took the lead on 10 minutes. A free kick delivered into the Legia penalty area was mis-headed by a Legia defender and the ball looped back up over the defensive line, and fell kindly to Wilczek who slotted past the helpless Legia keeper Kuciak.

Strangely the goal seemed to stun the home team as much as it did Legia! And for Piast Gliwice that was pretty much as good as it got for the whole game. From then on it was “batten down the hatches” as they opted for 80 minutes of defensive practice as they tried to keep Legia at bay. Despite having the lion’s share of possession, Legia seemed lethargic and one paced, and this seemed to play perfectly into the tactics of Piast’s defensive approach. The Legia players seemed almost complacent in their approach to the game; and it was as if the 3 points would just be a given.

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Legia did manage to get the breakthrough their possession probably deserved but that their approach and application didn’t; and they equalised just before half time through Duda on 43’.

In the second half Piast made life as difficult as they could for Legia, but despite having some decent opportunities to hit Legia on the counter attack, they visibly declined the opportunity of supporting their lone striker, preferring instead to retain men behind the ball and to settle for a point.

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Defending a 1-nil lead is always a nail biting affair for the fans, and unfortunately for Piast they conceded a goal at the worst possible time – the 4th minute of injury time! A fortunate 3 points for Legia as Dvalishvilli slotted home from close range, the celebrations exemplifying the relief of Henning Berg and his players. The win gave Legia a vital 7 point lead at the top of the table with 3 games remaining. More importantly it provided a decent cushion going into matchday 28 against 2nd placed Lech Poznan, as the unusual final phase of the league season now approaches.

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When it comes to introducing new formats to make football competitions more exciting the Polish FA has set a new benchmark! As the curtain falls on the regular Ekstraklasa season, the standard rule book for deciding who becomes champion’s, who gets qualification for Europe and who gets relegated has been well and truly ripped up. In fact a 30 round league season just doesn’t seem to cut the mustard anymore!

As I finally get round to writing this article the final whistle has already gone on match day 30 in the Ekstraklasa, and Legia Warsaw finished a whopping 10 points clear of closest rivals Lech Poznan. Meanwhile bottom club Widzew Lodz finished 9 points adrift of safety. 

The new season finale introduced this season is similar to being on the “Who wants to be a millionaire” game show, getting stuck on the £500,000 question and then using your 50/50 lifeline. Suddenly you’re in with a shout at the big money!

Every teams points tally for the season has been halved, and so too the league table. The top 8 play out an additional 7 games to decide who will be crowned champions and who gets the European qualification spots; the bottom 8 play out to see who gets relegated.

After the 30 round league season this means Legia’s runaway 10 point lead has been halved to 5 points, and although that lead should still see them go on to be crowned champions, recent weeks in the English Premier League has shown what can happen when the pressure of title chases and relegation battles really hots up. Suddenly Legia find the chasing pack on their shoulders again. At the other end of the table Widzew Lodz’s seemingly insurmountable deficit has now been reduced to just 5 points giving them a stay of execution and some renewed hope of retaining their place in the Ekstraklasa for next season.

There’s no doubt football constantly divides opinion, but the Ekstraklasa’s new format certainly leaves no room for the fence sitters! The Polish FA’s radical attempt to spice up the Polish League season has certainly got chins wagging!

Those in favour will say the new format brings an exciting fresh finale to a short season, and that every team has something to play for right up until the last kick of the ball. Put into context, if you were in the equivalent of Man United’s boat right now suddenly you would be in for a crack at a Champions League spot. Imagine Ryan Giggs salvaging Champions League qualification from a torrid season?! There’s not even a touch of the Newcastle United’s here either; when you thought you were in mid table obscurity and had long given up trying, suddenly you’re in with a shout of a Europa League spot! There’s even time for Alan Pardew to dish out another head butt, serve a ban and still be back on the bench before the playoff rounds end!

Conversely, those against it will say a 30 round league season is enough, and once completed the league table doesn’t lie. At this stage and with a 10 point lead fans of Legia think they should be crowned worthy champions; and if it’s about making the league season longer then just restructure the Ekstraklasa and introduce more teams to the league from the off. 

Instead now, fans of all teams face seven cup finals as the teams that would normally be out of the championship and relegation reckoning are now double motivated that they’ve got a second bite of the cherry!

To a neutral like me this all sounds rather exciting, and I’m sure the fans of Widzew Lodz will now be embracing the new format as they cling to hopes of a top flight future.

What’s also great about this new format is there’s not even the pretence of the Polish FA’s “random fixtures computer” getting involved in the scheduling of the final seven games! Oh no, just the bare faced cheek of making 1st v 2nd and 15th v 16th (as they stand now) play in the very last game of the season in the vain hope that it will have become a title clinching match or a relegation decider by then! 

Premier league and Sky eat your heart out! 

Other info: Getting to Piast Gliwice:

A train from Katowice to Gliwice takes 30-35 minutes and costs 5 or 13 zl (£1 – £2.50) depending on whether you catch a intercity or regional train. The ground is located a 15 minute walk from Gliwice train station and is a straight forward combination of left and right turns in that order!

Exit the station by using the underpass (at platform 1 end). As you walk up the slope and out to street level bare left onto ‘Tarnogorska Street’, and then take the next right onto ‘Opolska’. After 100 yards or so take the next left onto ‘Stanislawa Witkiewicza’. Walk up the incline and then take a right when you come to a small parade of shops on the edge of a housing estate. A small road snakes through the estate blocks and a series of garages covered in Piast Ultra’s graffiti will mark your approach to the stadium, and the sanctity of the floodlights in the distance will lead you the rest of the way!

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Getting hold of a ticket for this game was easier than I anticipated. The club had kindly responded to an email I sent them a few months previous and a ticket was put behind for me to collect from the media / accreditation sales window (which is adjacent to ‘Kasa 5’ outside Block S). Thanks to Damian from the clubs ticket office for sorting that out!

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