After ploughing through the European and title contenders in the Ekstraklasa earlier in the week, it’s now the turn of the teams in danger of making the treacherous fall into the depths of the Pierwsza Liga. A few weeks ago, the article would probably have consisted of just five words – “Cracovia and ŁKS are screwed”. But with Cracovia’s 3-1 victory over Podbeskidzie on Wednesday, and ŁKS heading into the Łódź derby on the back of a 1-0 win over the same opponents; is there a chance that either, or even both of them could earn the right to stay in the top flight? Welcome to the fight for Ekstraklasa survival.
Even just a few days ago, Cracovia were effectively relegated. You only had to speak to one of their supporters to see that confidence was low in and around Ulica Kałuży. Without a win since their 2-1 defeat of GKS Bełchatów back in late November, the Pasy sat four points behind their closest rivals, and seven from safety before the midweek game. After the sacking of coach Dariusz Pasieka in early March (he’d only taken the job in September), former Lechia boss Tomasz Kafarski was left a massive task; and picking up just four points from his first five games – shipping 12 goals in the process – has made his position increasingly unenviable.
As well as having currently played one more game than their rivals, Kafarski’s men haven’t the easiest end to the season. A trip to the capital to face Polonia is followed by the visit of mid-table Widzew Łódź; before the all-important journey across Park Błonia to face local rivals Wisła in the Kraków derby. Pasy see out their season by hosting title-challengers Ruch Chorzów before travelling to face a tricky GKS Bełchatów side.
Just as the Christmas break rolled around, there was much talk about how the current ŁKS Łódź side was the worst many people had ever seen. Since their return to the top-flight in the summer, heavy defeats and shocking defending had become a regular occurrence for the Rycere Wiosny. But even the nine goals conceded in their two ties against Lech Poznań, and their 4-0 losses to both Śląsk and Ruch weren’t enough to sit them in the relegation spots for the winter break – the ineptitude of both Zagłębie and Cracovia ensured that. With the threat of bankruptcy hanging over the club in January, it looked as though they would be competing for survival in a literal sense; but a late club-saving deal, and a complete squad reshape has seen a slightly different ŁKS emerge. After five coaching changes during the season (current boss Andrzej Pyrdoł was actually their first coach of the season), they finally picked up their first win since October, last week away at Podbeskidzie.
If the Spring Knights are going to complete their miraculous turnaround, they are going to have to do it against all odds. After Monday’s Łódź derby against Widzew, ŁKS have to face tough trips to Wisła, Ruch and Jagiellonia before the season is out, whilst their last six games also include the visits of Korona Kielce and Bełchatów to their crumbling Stadion ŁKS.
The third of our relegation candidates – Lechia Gdańsk – have only lost twice since the arrival of 2012; however four draws in their last seven have left them unable to pull away from the dreaded drop-zone. Like relegation rivals Cracovia and ŁKS, Lechia have also recently picked up their first win in ages; last week’s surprise 3-1 victory at Bełchatów being their first since defeating Ruch in late November. Currently on their third boss of the season – Paweł Janas – Lechia’s recent form suggests that they are capable of surviving, but an extremely difficult run-in could see them drop points on a regular occurrence.
The Biało-Zieloni face a long Easter-weekend trip to play fellow relegation-battlers Zagłębie Lubin on Monday, but in their remaining five games after, only one – a late-April trip to Widzew – is against a side who occupies a place outside of the top-six. Next Sunday’s journey to face Lech Poznań comes just one week before title-chasing Śląsk Wrocław arrive in Gdańsk; and following their trip to Łódź, Lechia must face off with current-leaders Legia before they travel to face second-placed Ruch Chorzów on the final day.
GKS Bełchatów have had a rather topsy-turvy start to 2012. After five wins and four draws in the Autumn round, Kamil Kiereś strengthened his squad with youth and players from lower leagues; and when they came away from Lech Poznań with a 1-0 victory, tied with Górnik Zabrze despite having just ten men for 45 minutes, and then beat European-chasing Polonia in Warsaw in their first three games of Spring, it looked as if the Brunatni would have no problem surviving. Bełchatów have also managed to pick up points at home to Wisła and away at Legia in March, but losses either side to Widzew and Lechia mean that they sit just four points about the trap-door.
Whilst not as difficult on paper as their rivals’ end to the season, Bełchatów’s last six games contain a few tricky ties. A trip to Śląsk Wrocław this weekend, as well as hosting Korona Kielce in a few weeks, are the two ties which they will likely drop points; but GKS will be hopeful of winning at home to Jagiellonia and Cracovia, whilst also picking up points from travels to both Zagłębie and ŁKS.
It hasn’t been the year expected for Lower Silesian club Zagłębie Lubin. Backed by big-money sponsors, the summer saw big investments in the playing squad – only to see the club sit rock-bottom of the Ekstraklasa for most of Autumn. Just the three wins and four draws saw the Miedziowi end 2011 on 13 points, hot favourites to drop down a division. Even a change of manager at the end of October didn’t have any instant effect. But as the transfer window opened, Czech boss Pavel Hapal was quick to forge his own squad; and after an opening-day draw with Wisła and a loss to Podbeskidzie, a five-game unbeaten run (four of them wins) has lifted Zagłębie to within a whisker of safety.
The Copper-shirts start their run-in with a trip north to face fellow strugglers Lechia Gdańsk on Easter Monday, before heading to Kielce to face Korona next Friday. An important home-tie with Bełchatów is then followed by a local derby against Śląsk; whilst the final week sees a journey to the capital to face Polonia on the Thursday, before their season ends with a home-clash against Górnik Zabrze three days later.
It’s extremely difficult to look past bottom clubs Cracovia and ŁKS for the drop; Cracovia have avoided relegation by the skin of their teeth for the past few years, whilst with ŁKS’s financial problems it seems as if their step up to the Ekstraklasa was too big. Over the season, it is themselves who haven’t shown enough quality to stay in the top-flight; whilst Zagłębie, Bełchatów and Lechia have all – albeit in brief glimpses – shown that they are capable of competing in the top tier of Polish football. But until the dust settles on the Ekstraklasa season, absolutely anything could happen.