Just one day after Legia Warszawa get their Champions League campaign underway, Sląsk Wrocław, Lech Poznań and Piast Gliwice will be kicking off their qualifying games in European football’s second competition. To get the lowdown on their opponents, EKSTRAKLASAreview spoke to footballing experts in Finland, Azerbaijan and Montenegro.
FC Honka Espoo (Finland) v Lech Poznań
Last year’s Finnish Cup winners Honka compete in the Europa League this season – but they almost missed out on Europe entirely. After the conclusion of the 2012 season, financial difficulties struck the club, and a row over unpaid wages led to the departure of two key players. But the club regrouped, were allowed to compete in the top flight, and come into their tie with Lech in good form.
The club have a reputation for producing decent young Finns throughout the team, but this year have brought in some key foreign players and they are doing the business. Ghanaian defender Gideon Baah and former Bolton defender Abdoulaye Meite have been tremendous in central defence, while Spaniard Ruben Palazuelos has slotted into midfield nicely. The young Finns have also produced – striker Tim Väyrynen won Veikkausliiga player of the month for June after four goals in six games, and free transfer Kastrati has weighed in with goals too.
Their 4-2-3-1 formation seems to suit them well, as their isn’t a lot of natural width in the side. Despite winning just one point from the first four games, Honka now sit joint top of the table with HJK, and are well equipped to challenge for the title. They’ve a habit of leaving their wins late, with two recent 1-0 wins coming from goals in the final minutes. A Lech delegation travelled to watch the league match against Jaro, which ended 4-2, and said they were ‘positively surprised’ at the level of play. The Poles believe they’ll have around 300 travelling fans in Finland.
Honka have only once made it past European qualifiers, back in 2008 they reached the first round proper of the UEFA Cup, but lost both legs 0-1 to Spanish club Racing Santander.
FK Rudar Pljevlja (Montenegro) v Sląsk Wrocław
Rudar qualified for Europe League despite finishing 5th in the league, as both 2nd (Buducnost) and 4th (Grbalj) clubs are suspended from European competitions due to not fulfilling debts to players and problems within the club.
They don’t have many strengths, especially now that two big players have left them. Their best player, Blazo Igumanovic, joined FC Astana, whilst Montenegrin international Ermin Alic joined Villarreal.
Rudar is a team that fights until the last second. But whilst they are a very combative team, their weakness may be a lack of experience – especially now they have been weakened by the departure of two of the best players. Śląsk played against Buducnost last year, and whilst Buducnost has hooligans, Rudar doesn’t have many fans and will likely not cause problems.
Also, Rudar don’t have a stadium capable of hosting European matches. Only two stadiums in Montenegro have a UEFA license – in Niksic (Sutjeska FC) and in Podgorica (Buducnost FC and the national team).
The match has been scheduled for Podgorica, so the only problem could be if the fans from other clubs (hooligans) decide to come and make riots. Hopefully the police would be aware of this possibility. So far there have been no injuries rudar can count on a full strength team.
Rudar’s captain Nedjeljko Vlahovic, who despite interest from other clubs has stayed in Rudar, can cause many problems to Śląsk. Currently he is the best player from Rudar Pljevlja. I believe that Śląsk will go into the next round, although I hope that I am wrong! Śląsk has more quality right now, and also their fans are incredible – they can lead them to the next round!
Qarabag Agdam (Azerbaijan) v Piast Gliwice
by Mark Smith
Qarabag finished second in the league last season to qualify for the Europa league qualifiers. They are a technical team and like to play possession football, and also are the most attractive team to watch in the country. They like to play out from the back, so if Piast press then they might have some joy.
An area where I believe they are vulnerable is set pieces and crosses. They have not the biggest centre backs so this something which other teams might try and exploit.
The player to watch for me is Richard Almeida de Oliveira, a Brazilian midfielder who gets forward and scores goals, and is dangerous around the box. They also have signed Leroy George, a Dutch forward/winger who I believe to be very dangerous. They will play their match in the national stadium which has been re-furbished.
Piast can expect a hostile atmosphere as everyone comes together from the country to support Azerbaijan teams in Europe. Its a fascinating club, they play in Baku however Qarabag is a war torn area and a disputed zone currently fought over by Azerbaijan and Armenia. Such an incredible story and something you might want to read into further: http://www.khojaly.org.az/officialdata.html