This wasn’t how it was supposed to go for Zagłębie Lubin this season. After investing heavily in the squad during the summer, much was expected of the small-town club from Lower Silesia. But somewhere along the line – somewhere quite early on – something went drastically wrong, and the top six has never looked further away.
After coach Marek Bajor was fired last March after Zagłębie’s humiliating 5-1 loss at Górnik Zabrze, the club appeared to be on a drastic decline – one that if not corrected, would have seen the Miedziowi battling for their Ekstraklasa future all the way up until May. But the appointment of former Legia Warszawa boss Jan Urban quickly steadied the Copper-coloured ship. Thirteen points taken from their next eight games – including surprise wins at home to Polonia Warszawa and Lech Poznań – pulled Zagłębie slowly away from the dreaded drop-zone. Whilst the last five games saw Urban’s men host European challengers (and local rivals) Śląsk Wrocław and League Champions Wisła Kraków; it was two strong away wins against GKS Bełchatów and Lechia Gdańsk which finally lifted the club into 11th position.
Having finished off the season with his squad inherited from the previous regime, the summer months saw Urban attempt to mould his own team with the funds available. With the sale of a number of players – including Grzegorz Bartczak and Dawid Plizga to Jagiellonia – freeing up funds, the coach was able to bring players to the Dialog Arena who were capable of pushing the 2006/07 Polish Champions on to better things.
With all areas of the squad a focus, former Metalurh Donetsk and Dinamo Moscow defender Marcin Kowalczyk was brought in alongside Polonia Bytom’s Błażej Telichowski and Polonia Warszawa’s Patryk Rachwał to help shore-up the back line.
Having been impressive for GKS Bełchatów in the previous season, Maciej Małkowski bolstered Zagłębie’s midfield; whilst pacey winger Janusz Gancarczyk headed south to join his former team-mate Rachwał.
With Dawid Plizga heading out of the door, Zagłębie were in desperate need of more attacking force; and despite being watched by many clubs across Europe, Widzew Łódź’s prolific Lithuanian striker Darvydas Šernas was somehow persuaded to head to Lubin instead.
The new-look Zagłębie Lubin were expected by many experts to challenge for a top-six spot in the upcoming season – with some even predicting a European challenge from the Miedziowi. Whilst there wasn’t much expected from their two opening games – an eventual draw at home to Lech Poznań and an away loss at Wisła Kraków – they were expected to push on quickly from there…
However, the push took a little longer than expected.
In fact, draws against newly promoted Podbeskidzie, 9-man Cracovia, and Widzew – as well as a loss at Ruch Chorzów – were to pass before Zagłębie finally chalked off a 2-1 win at home against a poor ŁKS Łódź side at the end of September. During this spell, Zagłębie were also knocked out of the Puchar Polski by II Liga club MKS Kluczbork.
By the time October rolled around, the pressure on Jan Urban was quickly mounting. After disappointing October losses to both Jagiellonia and Lechia Gdańsk, rumours began to circulate that a loss in the next game would see Urban dismissed.
The players responded to the rumours with a fantastic 3-1 victory over a Korona Kielce side who had previously lost just one league game; although Urban’s respite was short – a 2-1 loss in Bełchatów signalled the end of his 7 months in charge at the Dialog Arena.
Later on the same day, former Banik Ostrava and Zilina coach Pavel Hapal was appointed as Urban’s successor; but with the club languishing at the bottom of the table with only six games remaining in the Autumn round, it was an unenviable task ahead for the former Czech international.
Hapal’s baptism of fire came quickly, with his first game in charge being the Lower Silesian derby against league leaders Śląsk Wrocław. The 70km trip proved to be fruitful for visiting Śląsk though, as they ran out convincing 5-1 winners – pushing Zagłębie even further into the mire. Although a well-battled home win against championship-chasing Polonia Warszawa softened the blow, it would prove to be Zaglebie’s last points of 2011 as four straight losses (home and away to Legia, and trips to Poznań and Zabrze) meant that the Miedziowi entered the winter break rock-bottom of the Ekstraklasa.
With Hapal aiming to transform a lacklustre Zagłębie side into a team capable of avoiding the drop, his dealings in the transfer window will need to be carefully managed and well thought-out. After falling out with the management, defender Telichowski was allowed to join Górnik Zabrze; with Górnik‘s club captain Adam Banaś heading in the opposite direction. Midfielders Gancarczyk and Dominykas Galkevičius have also been told that they can leave the club, whilst rumours have floated around that Maciej Małkowski could follow them out of the Dialog Arena doors.
The last week has seen Hapal bring in more reinforcements, as Zagłębie completed the signing of Czech midfielder Jiří Bílek from Bundesliga strugglers Kaiserslautern, and Slovakian Ivan Hodúr from FC Nitra. With four weeks left until their return to Ekstraklasa action – a home tie against reigning champions Wisła – there is still time for even more signings in Lubin. But as we’ve already seen at Zagłębie this season; it’s not necessarily the quality of the signing, but their ability to battle together as a team, which will be the real key to their survival.
Cracovia may have performed the impossible to survive last season; but if they want to stay in the top-flight, Zagłębie will have to show a lot more fight than they have so far…