With Legia Warszawa aiming to become the first Polish side in 16 years to reach the Champions League group stages, they start their campaign with a trip to Wales to face The New Saints FC. EKSTRAKLASAreview spoke to Welsh football expert Mark Pitman to get the lowdown on the Welsh Champions.
EKSTRAKLASAreview: How did TNS qualify for the Champions League? Was their league win straightforward?
MP: The New Saints absolutely dominated the Corbett Sports Welsh Premier League last season and retained their title by a 22-point margin. As well as being the only club not to have a player sent off, the champions also won the most games, lost the least, scored the most goals and conceded the least out of the 12-club league. The only disappointment for the management team of Craig Harrison (Director of Football) and Carl Darlington (Head Coach) was that they could not add to any cup success. Although impressive, their dominance was also expected. They are the only full-time professional club in the national league, and naturally they have high domestic standards as a result. While some clubs will take points off them, over the course of the season, they inevitably come out on top. They are also the only team in the league to play on an artificial surface, the same surface they train on daily. Craig Harrison countered this argument to me in a recent interview by saying how his team aren’t properly prepared to play on difficult grass surfaces in the winter, something that the other eleven clubs are more accustomed too. However, their home form over the last few seasons is consistent with a clear advantage to playing and training on the same artificial surface.
What are their strengths?
Their strengths are in the spin-offs from being a full-time outfit. They are simply fitter and more focused than the rest of the teams in the Corbett Sports Welsh Premier League. They are a very good footballing side but they also have strength and pace throughout the team. Another key strength is in their balance. They have a good mix of experience and youth and also competition for places throughout the squad.
Do they have any areas which Legia could exploit?
This will be an unfamiliar fixture for The New Saints in that they will not be favourites, and as a result they could move away from their usual game plan. How they adapt to that will be interesting and it does bring with it the risk of mistakes. Playing in an intense atmosphere will also be a new experience, and again adapting to the surroundings could prove to be more of a distraction than an inspiration. As for the team, they are domestically strong, and they also have a wealth of European football experience to call upon.
With 7000 tickets supposedly going to Polish fans for the first leg in Wrexham, could it almost be a case of two away legs for TNS?
The atmosphere will play a part, but the return leg in Warsaw will inevitably be the more intimidating. Although The New Saints are not playing at their own ground in Oswestry, Wrexham will not be an unfamiliar venue for many of their players, and there should be a decent number of Welsh football supporters in attendance as well. The result from the 1st leg will also play a part in the atmosphere that the side can expect to experience in the 2nd leg, one way or the other.
Are there any injuries?
Veteran defender Steve Evans is likely to miss-out having reportedly suffered a reoccurrence of an Achilles injury that has kept him out of action since the beginning of the year.
Are there any players which some people may be aware of?
Evans is the most recognisable name in The New Saints’ squad, having earned seven full international caps for Wales between 2006 and 2008. However, his involvement is now unlikely. Striker Greg Draper has played for New Zealand, and scored the goal that took his country to the Olympic Games in 2012, but it was not enough to earn himself a place in the Olympic squad. Director of Football Craig Harrison played for Middlesbrough in the English Premier League before injury ended his playing career.
Finally, do you have a prediction for both the first leg and the final result?
The first half of the first leg will be crucial in dictating the eventual result. If The New Saints can sufficiently frustrate their opponents then they will have a chance of keeping themselves in the tie. Chances will be few and far between for the Corbett Sports Welsh Premier League champions, they just have to make sure that they do not waste any that they have. They will need a bit of luck at both ends of the field too. A draw in the first match might be the best they can hope for, but if they can achieve such a result, it would certainly surprise Legia and make for a very interesting return match.
Mark Pitman is the Welsh football correspondent for UEFA.com and also writes for a number of websites, blogs, magazines and programmes. Visit www.markpitman1.com for a full archive or follow him on @markpitman1 and @UEFAcomMPitman.