Closing the Gap?

With four rounds of the Ekstraklasa completed, we’re definitely not short of surprises. As well as the two pre-season favourites Legia Warszawa and Lech Poznań sitting towards the top end of the table, unbeaten, we have three surprise names still yet to lose a game. Whilst none of them are expected to keep it up, Jagiellonia Białystok, Górnik Zabrze, and the early pacesetters Widzew Łódź have turned heads with their decent performances so far.  But are they really closing the gap between themselves and the big clubs?

Hajto’s Travelling Conundrum

Whilst they haven’t picked up three points since their opening-weekend victory over Podbeskidzie, Jagiellonia remain unbeaten thanks to three successive draws – at home to both Górnik and Zagłębie Lubin, and this weekend’s trip to a Polonia Warszawa side who have impressed (and surprised) many.

Saturday’s clash in the capital saw the return of arguably Jagiellonia’s most important player – Tomasz Frankowski – after missing the games against Górnik and Zagłębie through suspension. Despite his age (Tomasz is now 38 years old), the former Wisła, Wolves and Elche striker is still scoring goals for fun at his hometown club. With the recent acquisition of former National Team striker Ebi Smolarek, Jaga now potentially have one of the most formidable strike-forces in the league. If Smolarek can quickly make an impact, most Ekstraklasa defences will not fancy playing against the pair.

Jagiellonia do have another factor playing its part in their potential success – their location. Poland’s eleventh-most populated city is actually situated just 45km from the country’s border with Belarus. Białystok is also around 200km away from its closest airport in Warsaw – almost the same distance as it is to the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius. This means that whenever a club is scheduled to play against Jagiellonia, a long bus or train ride before the game lies ahead. When teams come from Silesia, it is a round trip to Białystok of around 900-1000km; and when Pogoń Szczecin make the trip later in the season, the one-way journey is a staggering 600km.

This in no-doubt played a massive part in Jagiellonia’s fantastic home-form last season. In their fifteen games the Yellow-Reds managed to pick up an impressive 32 points, with Lech Poznań the only side in the league to pick up more points on their home ground. However, sitting in the middle of nowhere has its disadvantages too – and this was evident in Jaga’s away form. Travelling over 11,000 kilometres for league games during the season had a massively detrimental effect on the club. With just one win and four draws away from Białystok, Jagiellonia’s away form was the worst in the league – even the relegated sides Cracovia and ŁKS managed more points.

Whilst Jagiellonia have a great chance to continue their run at home to Piast Gliwice next weekend, the following week’s journey to Szczecin could be a real test of Tomasz Hajto’s men. If he can find a way to negate the problems caused by the constant travelling, the Yellow-Blues really could be a team to watch out for.

The Sleeping Giant?

It’s been 24 years since the last Polish League title swung its way to the Silesian city of Zabrze. With the fall of communism and the collapse of the local mining industry just two factors that has seen money drain from Upper Silesia, times have been increasingly difficult for Górnik – one of the country’s better supported clubs.

With huge financial problems engulfing the club over the past few years, Górnik has become known as a club which has been forced to regenerate every year in order to stay afloat. Bringing in players cheaply during the summer, coach Adam Nawałka has become used to selling them on the following year for a profit. Robert Jeż and Daniel Sikorski were sold to Polonia Warszawa in the summer of 2011 as Górnik slowly chipped away at their debts, but trying to do the same in 2012 didn’t work as planned.

Although Michał Pazdan was sold to Jagiellonia, the only other first-team player to leave the club was Adam Marciniak – a free transfer to Cracovia. The planned multi-million złoty transfers of goalkeeper Łukasz Skorupski and attacker Prejuce Nakoulma eventually didn’t go through, and Górnik were staring at a massive hole in their budget.

However, with Skorupski and Nakoulma remaining at the club, Górnik have managed to strengthen their side rather than just rebuild it. Bringing in a mixture of players with experience, and some bright young talent, Nawałka has managed to so far compliment his existing side well; and six points out of a possible twelve does no credit to the job that the coach has done so far.

Even with three tough away games to start – a local derby against Piast Gliwice, a long journey to Jagiellonia Białystok, and a difficult trip to 2010 champions Lech Poznań – Sunday’s draw with league favourites Legia Warszawa -twice coming from behind – was the game which proved to demonstrate the belief and character which Nawałka has instilled into his Górnik side.

If Górnik can carry on concentrating on their own game rather than worrying about the opposition, there is no reason their unbeaten record can’t continue for a little longer…

The One-Hundred Percenters

With one of, if not the smallest budget in the Ekstraklasa, 1997 Champions Widzew Łódź were widely expected to be struggling at the wrong end of the table. Opening games against Champions Śląsk Wrocław and vice-champions Ruch Chorzów led many to believe that Widzew would be sitting pointless after the opening two rounds. But no-one told that to Radosław Mroczkowski and his men.

Tearing up the script before even taking the field, Widzew’s 2-1 victory over a suspension-ravaged Śląsk was followed by a comfortable 2-0 victory over Tomasz Fornalik’s Ruch. However the victories were largely accredited to Śląsk’s depleted side and Ruch’s poor form, and it took until Aléx Bruno’s winner against GKS Bełchatów for many to direct the plaudits towards Mroczkowski and his men.

With their three opening games in Łódź, many wondered if Widzew could keep up their winning streak away at a Zagłębie Lubin side whose start has been slower than many expected. But with Aléx Bruno’s second goal in as many games, Widzew became the only side in the league to maintain their 100% record – however that is a record which is expected to go very soon.

Mroczkowski has built a team which has gone under the radar, but many believe that they still could struggle this season. Whilst their start has already put them half-way to the points total achieved by relegated cross-town rivals ŁKS last term, there is a worry that Widzew’s side doesn’t contain any players who can provide something special when the going gets tough.

Already on a high from halting Legia’s 100% record, Górnik Zabrze are the next side to visit Łódź on Sunday. With previous opponents Śląsk and Ruch performing well below par, some believe that the on-form Górnik will be the first major test of the season for Mroczkowski’s men. However the Stadion Widzewa hasn’t proved to be a happy hunting-ground for Górnik, losing on their last five visits – and not picking up a win in Łódź since 2004.

One thing is for certain though – one of their records will definitely go this weekend. Failure to win would see Widzew relinquish their 100% record, whilst a Widzew victory would see Górnik lose their unbeaten start.

Whatever happens this weekend, Jagiellonia, Górnik and Widzew will not remain unbeaten forever. But what we have seen so far is that some of the poorer sides in the league are able to compete against the big names. With money becoming increasingly tight at top clubs including Legia, Lech Śląsk and Wisła, the smaller clubs are seemingly closing the gap – albeit very slightly. Or maybe the fantastic starts from the unbeaten clubs can be put down to something other than cash. Maybe they are finding the perfect formula for breaking the top clubs’ stranglehold on the Ekstraklasa.

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