Finishing the autumn round on top of the Polish Ekstraklasa, reigning champions Legia Warszawa entered the winter break without a coach after Jan Urban was dismissed after just over eighteen months in charge. Five points clear of their closest challengers Górnik Zabrze, a Polish Cup defeat to their title rivals turned out to be the final straw as the Polish press reported of his impending dismissal with the Legia team bus still en-route back to the capital.
On paper, a team with a five point lead shouldn’t be in a position to be thinking about sacking their coach; however the truth is that, despite their league position, Legia have stagnated since lifting the 2012/13 Polish Championship – their first in seven years. New signings were expected to help push Legia onto the Champions League, but have merely shown glimpses of what they were brought in to do. More seasoned Legioniści stars have just not been able to replicate their title-winning form when it has mattered.
Becoming the first Polish club to reach the Champions League group stage since Widzew Lódź in 1997 was the target given to Urban by Legia president Bogusław Leśnodorski; however he was still more than happy to back his manager:
“I believe that we will succeed” said Leśnodorski after a disappointing Third Qualifying Round, first leg tie with Molde in Norway. “And even if, God forbid, something happens, Jan Urban certainly will not be released”.
Relations though took a turn for the worst following a play-off round elimination to Steaua Bucharest, and a subsequent Europa League campaign which saw five successive defeats before even scoring their first goal. A 2-0 away victory against Cypriot Cup winners Apollon Limassol providing no other consolation than preventing the embarrassment of a complete whitewash.
Polish sports daily Przegląd Sportowy labelled the Europa League performances as the “worst performance in Polish history”, but Legia have managed to blow hot-and-cold in the Ekstraklasa too. High-scoring victories: 4-1 games against Piast Gliwice and Cracovia, and the 5-1 against Widzew; have been interspersed with disappointing losses: relegation-threatened Podbeskidzie and newly-promoted Zawisza Bydgoszcz both taking the impressive scalp. While only three points worse-off than at the same stage last season, the manner of losing those points – six losses so far this season, compared to just three in the whole of the last – has only confirmed that the Legia taking to the field this season isn’t the same as the one which was crowned as Mistrz Polski back in June.
No doubt injuries have contributed to their inability to progress as expected: goalkeeper Dusan Kuciak, right back Bartosz Bereszyński, winger Jakub Kosecki, and striker Marek Saganowski have all missed over half of the autumn round. In Artur Jędrzejczyk and Danijel Ljuboja, they also lost important and experienced players. But for a team who have spent as much, and continue to have as much strength-in-depth as Legia have, it is difficult to accept either as an excuse.
Whilst Urban’s dismissal came after Wednesday’s 3-1 cup defeat in Zabrze, the following day’s appointment of former Norwegian international Henning Berg proves that the powers-that-be at Legia had made the decision before the game had even begun. In an ironic twist, the last time Legia were eliminated from the competition (an away-goal defeat to Ruch Chorzów in March 2010) came just a few days after Urban had been relieved from his first spell at the club.
With the winter break now upon us, former Manchester United and Blackburn Rovers centre-back Berg officially takes charge of the Wojskowi from January 1st. With president Leśnodorski already signalling that failure isn’t an option for whoever is in charge at Łazienkowska, the new man at the helm will have his work cut out from the start.
Since his appointment Berg’s previous managerial experience has also been brought into question, and whether he is up to the task of taking charge of the Polish Champions will remain to be seen. After guiding his first club FC Lyn Oslo to a third-place finish in his first season, he has seen a steady decline in results – finishing seventh and ninth before a move to Lillestrom, where he narrowly avoided relegation before his dismissal in 2011. His only previous experience of managing outside of his home country came in a brief, unsuccessful spell at his former club Blackburn; lasting just 57 days.
Although praise for Berg’s appointment has come from his own former boss Sir Alex Ferguson, it has been met with scepticism both in Poland and Norway. A number of Norwegians have suggested that he lacks the experience to take charge of a side challenging for the title, whilst Poles have compared his appointment to that of José Mari Bakero at Lech Poznań – something which didn’t turn out well for either party.
While this season hasn’t turned out as hoped for Legia, cup exits will only heap pressure onto both coach and players. Now just left in one competition, anything other than lifting the title will almost certainly be considered a failure.