With the pre-tournament favourites eliminated early on, this season’s Puchar Polski looks very different to those in recent seasons. Legia Warszawa, champions on the last three occasions, were eliminated before the winter break. Their victors, and subsequent tournament favourites, Górnik Zabrze found themselves knocked-out in the next round. Both Lech Poznań and Ruch Chorzów lost to lower league opposition, whilst Wisła Kraków couldn’t make it past the last sixteen.
Of the remaining four sides, only two of them have had their names etched onto the cup previously. Now Arka Gdynia, Zagłębie Lubin, Zawisza Bydgoszcz and Jagiellonia Białystok are 180 minutes – plus extra-time and penalties if needed – from becoming the first name on the brand new trophy.
Zagłębie Lubin – Arka Gdynia
1st Leg: 8th April, 18:30 CET (Lubin)
2nd Leg: 16th April 18:30 CET (Gdynia)
Despite having lifted the league trophy twice, Ekstraklasa strugglers Zagłębie Lubin have never lifted the Polish Cup – despite reaching back-to-back finals in 2005 and 2006. On both occasions, Zagłębie went down over two legs – firstly to Dyskobolia Grodzisk Wielkopolski, and twelve months later to Wisła Płock.
While second-tier Arka have only reached one final, way back in the 1978/79 season, they did emerge from it victorious. Despite trailing 1-0 at half-time, two goals in ten minutes were enough to take the trophy back to the Baltic Coast. Ironically, the losing coach on that day was a 36 year-old Orest Lenczyk – the man who will be plotting their downfall from the Zagłębie dugout.
While on paper the meeting of two sides in different divisions will tend to favour the higher, it is Pierwsza Liga side Arka who have form going into the clash. Just one loss in their last fifteen competitive games has propelled them up to third in the table, just four points off of the automatic promotion spots.
Now in their third season outside of the top-flight, Arka are assembling a talented squad of youth and experience. Alongside on-loan Legia defender Mateusz Cichocki, 21 year-old keeper Michał Szromnik and midfielder Michał Rzuchowski; the experience of Adrian Budka (117 top-flight appearances with Widzew Łódź, Pogoń Szczecin and Górnik Łęczna), Tomasz Jarzębiwski (179 games at Legia Warszawa and GKS Bełchatów), and Marcin Radzewicz (188 games with Odra Wodzisław, Polonia Bytom, Piast Gliwice and Dyskobolia Grodzisk Wielkopolski) have been hugely beneficial to both their promotion push, and their impressive cup run.
However the most impressive area of Arka’s squad is their strike force. While Brazilian Marcus Vinicius hasn’t quite matched his fifteen-goal tally from last season, coach Paweł Sikora added Arkadiusz Aleksander to partner him. The former Flota and Sandecja hitman has hit an impressive 12 goals so far – already his best return in three years. If that wasn’t enough, they also surprised during the winter transfer window with the acquisition of Lech Poznań’s Bartosz Ślusarski. Having hit eleven top-flight goals last term, the 32 year-old has already hit two for his new side – and equaliser at home to Wisła Płock, and the winner at Flota a week later.
Like Arka, Zagłębie have also improved after the winter break. An extremely disappointing Autumn destroyed their chances of a top-half finish, and even though they have lost just two of their eight league games in 2014, their weekend defeat to Lechia Gdańsk leaves them hovering just a point above the drop zone.
However they do have a number of talented stars themselves; most notably Arkadiusz Piech – signed from Turkish club Sivasspor in late August, and Nigerian attacking midfielder David Abwo. The pair have formed an impressive partnership in the last few months, with Abwo’s six goals this season complimenting Piech’s ten.
Despite the talent which can be found in their squad, coach Lenczyk has often struggled to find the best way to deploy them. For much of the season they have disappointed; and if recent reports are to be believed, the 71 year-old manager will not have his contract renewed at the end of the season – even if they lift the trophy in May.
Jagiellonia Białystok – Zawisza Bydgoszcz
1st Leg: 9th April, 18:30 CET (Białystok)
2nd Leg: 15th April, 17:45 CET (Bydgoszcz)
The last side to win the Puchar Polski before Legia’s three-year dominance, Jagiellonia will now be considered the favourites by many due to their experience and stability in the top flight. But that doesn’t mean they haven’t had their problems. An average league season of mid-table obscurity has been punctuated by victories over Puszcza Niepołomice, Śląsk Wrocław and Lechia Gdańsk to reach the semi-final.
However Sunday’s 6-1 hammering by Lech Poznań was enough for the board to mutually terminate the contract of former Polonia boss Piotr Stokowiec after less than a year at the helm. As his replacement Jaga returned to the man who led them to their cup win in 2010, Michał Probierz. Coincidentally, he was dismissed from his previous job at Lechia less than 24 hours after they were knocked out of the competition by his new club.
In the other dugout is a man whose stock has increased dramatically over the last twelve months: Zawisza coach Ryszard Tarasiewicz. Taking over from Yurij Shatolov with promotion back to the Ekstraklasa slipping away, the former Śląsk coach turned the club’s fortunes around quickly – lifting the league trophy on the final day.
Since returning to the big time, Zawisza have gone from strength-to-strength, and have already assured their spot in the Ekstraklasa’s end-of-season Championship Group with a game to spare. Their cup run has also been well deserved, having defeated Dariusz Wdowczyk’s impressive Pogoń Szczecin and spring favourites Górnik Zabrze to reach the last four. Victory over Jagiellonia will already better their previous best showing in the Puchar – a 4-1 aggregate semi-final defeat to eventual champions GKS Katowice back in 1991.
Though just four teams lie in between Zagłębie and Arka in the standings, just three teams and four points stand between Zawisza and Jagiellonia, with the former on top. However it is Jagiellonia who have had the better of the two meetings between the sides this term, holding their opponents to a 1-1 draw in Białystok, and emerging from Bydgoszcz with a single-goal victory.
As has been seen in the games between the two, there isn’t a lot to separate the sides:
Jagiellonia are able to call on the experience of defenders Ugo Ukah and Michał Pazdan; and midfielder Rafał Grzyb. Zawisza meanwhile have former Cracovia keeper Wojciech Kaczmarek; defenders Igor Lewczuk, Paweł Strąk and Łukasz Skrzyński; and a wealth of midfield experience in Sebastian Dudek, Hermes, and Vahan Gevorgyan.
However young talent is more noticeable with Jaga; Adam Dźwigała, Adam Waszkiewicz and Jonathan Straus all featuring regularly. Whilst he may not be classed as “young” anymore, Zawisza have handed a new lease of life to former Lech prospect Kamil Drygas – He has impressed over the last 12 months, even scoring twice in the second leg against Górnik.
Both sides though have found the majority of their goals from elsewhere; with Dani Quintana, Bekim Balaj, Dawid Plizga and Mateusz Piątkowski hitting a combined 29 league goals for Jagiellonia this term; while Bernardo Vasconcelos, Luís Carlos and Michał Masłowski netting 20 times between the for Zawisza. However unfortunately for them, their eight-goal star Masłowski will miss the tie with an adductor muscle injury, giving the yellow-reds a huge advantage.
Whatever the outcome of the semi-final ties over the next nine days, we will definitely have an surprise first name engraved on the new trophy, and an unexpected name entering the Europa League qualifying rounds. While often in recent years we have seen the usual names lift trophies and enter Europe, it’s nice to see that in Poland the ‘Magic of the Cup’ is still alive and well.