Thursday’s 2-1 victory over Metalist Kharkiv may have ensured Legia Warszawa passage to the Europa League knock-out rounds with two games to spare, but despite their early advance now is no time for the Polish champions to slow down. In fact, now is exactly where they should be picking up.
With four wins from four games Legia’s advancement has been well deserved, with only one other club – Dynamo Moscow – achieving a similar feat this campaign. But although third-placed Lokeren can no longer catch them, there is still much for the Wojskowi to play for when they travel to Belgium in three weeks’ time.
As well as first place in the group, which still could escape Legia should they lose both of their remaining games and Trabzonspor pick up maximum points, the current “Mistrz Polski” not only find themselves in a fantastic position to improve their club’s reputation, but also that of Polish football, both on and off the field.
While just a draw at home to their Turkish rivals (or a win in Belgium before that) will guarantee their place amongst the seeded teams for the round-of-32, it is the almost-mysterious workings of the UEFA rankings (and of course the extra little bit of cash) which presents Legia with one of their biggest reasons for trying to keep their 100% record in tact.
Thanks to their impressive form, Legia have moved up a staggering 44 places in the UEFA Club Rankings so far, giving them a higher chance of being seeded in next year’s qualifying round games. They now sit in 80th position, 7,425 ranking points better off than they were at the start of the season; and with the disappointing 2010/11 season – in which they didn’t take part in European competition – due to be expunged from their record next year, another good campaign could see them rise even higher.
Off-the-field, the “Celtic incident” earlier in the season also thrust Legia into the spotlight, with UEFA’s punishment for fielding an ineligible player for the final four minutes of their 6-1 aggregate victory attracting widespread attention. While many neutrals, and even a handful of Celtic fans deemed the decision harsh; Legia’s ingenious, albeit occasionally excessive, use of social media and the Twitter hashtag “#letfootballwin” could have taught a few bigger clubs about how to engage with their online following.
As well as increasing their own stature, Legia are also steadily dragging Poland’s national coefficient up the table. Up two places to nineteenth, the gap to fifteenth place is now just 4,799 points, compared to 10,475 at the end of the 2013/14 campaign. While four other countries would have to be displaced for Poland to reach the top fifteen, the reward for doing so is great – an extra spot in the Champions League.
However, while the two nations immediately in front of Poland – Cyprus and Croatia – are seeing their clubs struggle to pick up points in Europe this season; Romania (Steaua), Austria (Salzburg) and Czech Republic (Sparta Prague) are all in line to progress to the next stage of the competition. Fifteenth-place may be a little out of Poland’s reach just yet.
One of the biggest issues is that, for the time being, it is Legia alone who are putting Polish football back on the map, and doing so will be no easy task. If Poland is to earn and then hold onto a fifth European spot, Legia will require some form of support.
Since their heroic performances against Juventus and Manchester City, Lech Poznań have been close to atrocious on the continent. Wisła Kraków, the only other side to progress past European group stage in recent seasons, have had issues both on-and-off the field preventing them from getting anywhere near those heights again. Jagiellonia Białystok, Zawisza Bydgoszcz, Śląsk Wrocław and Piast Gliwice: all have also reached the qualifying rounds in recent years, but despite one-or-two glimpses they have made little-to-no impact on Poland’s ranking.
The only side coming close to matching Legia this season were Silesians Ruch Chorzów, who were just two minutes and a penalty shootout away from reaching the Europa League’s group stages. Yet on their performances so far this season, they will be lucky to survive in the Polish top-flight, let alone contribute to Their nation’s coefficient in the near future.
Extremely unlucky not to get their shot at Champions League football this year, given the players’ determination to prove themselves there are now not many who would write-off Legia’s chances of bridging that gap next season – of course providing that they can retain their league title.
But while Champions League qualification would have a massive impact on the club, the benefit to Polish football as a whole would be less so. In order to see that, it would require the likes of Legia’s great rivals Lech Poznań and Wisła Kraków to chip in, and at least put in a few performances on an international stage like they have done before.
However much Legia shouldn’t be expected to drag their country’s ranking upwards by themselves, they are giving it a good go. Should Poland once again begin to have an impact on European football in the coming years, we may find ourselves looking back at this Legia team as the one that paved most of the way.