Ekstraklasa in Europe: Wisła Kraków – Standard Liege

After Legia host Sporting earlier in the evening, Poland’s second Europa League representatives Wisła Kraków get their 2012 campaign underway – hosting last season’s Belgian league runners-up Standard Liège at 21:05 local time (20:05 UK). Can the reigning Mistrz Polski earn passage to the last-16?

So far, the current season hasn’t quite matched the last for supporters of Wisła Kraków. After the euphoria of claiming their 13th league title in May, the club found themselves struggling to keep up with the top-four by the time December came around. Now sitting ten points adrift of leaders Śląsk Wrocław, the Biała Gwiazda will be required to significantly push on in 2012 if they want to play in Europe next season.

Both the club’s European and League performances were to blame for Robert Maaskant’s dismissal in early November, with the 1-0 defeat to Cracovia in the massive Kraków derby being the straw which finally broke the camel’s back. Since then, new boss Kazimierz Moskal has started to push Wisła back onto the right track, and even claiming qualification from their Europa League group in the most unlikely of circumstances.

Following a victory against Odense in Denmark during matchday 5, Wisła were required to beat group leaders FC Twente, and hope that Odense could snatch something from Fulham in the final game. Just as Wisła had completed a good 2-1 win in Kraków, news filtered through to the Henryk Reyman Stadium that Fulham were leading by the same scoreline in London. As the deflated Wisła players headed over to thank their fans for their support, a huge cheer erupted in the stadium – signalling a last-gasp Odense equaliser.

Thursday’s tie against Standard signals Wisła’s first piece of competitive action since that dramatic night in Kraków, and – despite a decent showing in their mid-season friendly games – how strong they will return is anyone’s guess.

Wisła have been the least active Polish club in the transfer market during the winter, with Moskal trying to create a settled atmosphere within the camp. However, due to their constant squad rotation due to injuries and performances, predicting a starting 11 could become quite difficult.

Estonian stopper Sergei Pareiko will certainly start in goal for the White Star; whilst a back four consisting of Serbian Marko Jovanović, young Pole Michał Czekaj, Honduran Osman Chavez, and Costa Rican Junior Diaz wouldn’t be unlikely. But with Gordan Bunoza, Michael Lamey and Kew Jaliens knocking at the door, Moskal has plenty of options across the back line.

Club captain Radosław Sobołewski has missed the last few months having suffered a long-term injury, so Gervasio Nunez and Cezary Wilk should fill in the defensive midfield roles. One of the first names on the Wisła teamsheet, Israeli star Maor Melikson is likely to be creating opportunities from the middle of the park.

Out wide could be an all-Polish affair, with Patryk Małecki and Łukasz Garguła battling with Slovenian Andraz Kirm and Serbian Ivica Iliev tosupport a lone striker – likely either Charleroi’s on-loan Israeli Dudu Biton or Bulgarian Tsvetan Genkov. There is also a chance that midfielder Melikson could be pushed in to a more attacking role, having been tried up-front during Wisła’s winter training camp.

If Wisła are struggling, Moskal does have a wealth of talent to call upon should he need it – especially in midfield – with Dragan Paljic, Tomas Jirsak and Daniel Brud in contention for the final eighteen.

Whilst Wisła will feel that they have a slightly easier tie than Legia, they know that they will still go into the first leg as second favourites to qualify. Like Legia’s opponents Sporting, Standard will not enjoy playing in winter-time Poland, where night-time temperatures have recently been as low as -20°c. But both teams will have to play in the same conditions, and if an unmotivated Wisła – who have already lost four league games at home this season – turns up… Well, we just won’t think about that yet.

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