Having been in Warsaw for just over a year, Henning Berg’s transformation of his Legia Warsaw side has been impressive. Taking over at the start of January 2014, he inherited Jan Urban’s Polish Cup holders which had been unceremoniously dumped from the competition by Górnik Zabrze weeks earlier, and humiliated in the Europa League with just three points to show from their six group games.
Rolling into Berg’s fourteenth month in charge at Łazienkowska 3, the difference could not be any more visible: comfortably into the Puchar quarter-finals, and ahead of Śląsk Wrocław at the top of the Ekstraklasa; they have also managed to maintain a European campaign past Christmas for only the second time in nineteen years. Incredibly, he has managed this with much of the same squad left to him by his predecessor.
The losses of first-teamers Jakub Wawrzyniak and Dominik Furman, as well as fringe players such as Daniel Łukasik, Vladimir Dvalishvili and Marko Suler, could have been seen as disappointing for some Legia fans; yet four main acquisitions – Ondrej Duda, Orlando Sá, Guilherme and now Michał Masłowski – over the last three transfer windows have added an extra depth to the Wojskowi squad.
Michał Żyro has improved, and ousted Jakub Kosecki – a favourite of Urban – from his position on the wing. Michał Kucharczyk has also improved; and whilst there was talk of him perhaps not making the grade under his former boss, he is now one of the first names on the teamsheet under Berg. Both have shown form for Legia deserving of their call-ups to the National team.
While not a Berg signing, Łukasz Broź has taken his chance in the first team, ousting Bartosz Bereszyński from the right-back spot, in-part due to the latter’s injuries and suspensions. While having started shakily, Guilherme is also shaping himself into the club’s first choice ahead of Tomasz Brzyski on the left side of defence.
The luxury players; Ondrej Duda, Orlando Sa, Marek Saganowski – whichever plays, they all contribute something to the team; whether it is the skills of Slovakian international Duda, or the goalscoring abilities of the two experienced strikers.
However Berg’s main successes lie with the spine of his team – the three captains of the squad; skipper Ivica Vrdoljak, and vice-captains Jakub Rzezniczak and Miroslav Radović.
Highlighting the trio’s importance to the Norwegian, you have to go back to as far as the 25th May 2014 to find the last defeat in which all three of these players started – a 2-1 loss to Ruch Chorzów, just days after confirmation that the 2013/14 league title had been secured. This is also the only occasion during Berg’s 53 games in charge that Legia have lost a game in which Radović has started.
After being left out of Legia’s 18-man squad to face Ajax in the Europa League knock-out round, and again for the weekend’s Ekstraklasa draw with Korona Kielce, the Serb’s transfer to China is looking increasingly likely. It is here that lays Legia’s potential problem: while their squad rotation system means that they will sometimes lose games, they are a much more formidable proposition with Radović in the starting line-up.
The loss of other players has in the past been covered; however Berg has yet to deal with the departure of one of his key players. There will now be questions over how to replace Radović, or even whether the replacement of him is possible at all.
The second half performance against Ajax was impressive despite Radović’s absence from the squad, however it is difficult to not think that the one-goal defeat could have been different if it was him on the end of the many missed chances. They also still top the league table despite him only starting in eight of their twenty-one league games this season.
But still in the hunt for three trophies, when the games begin to come thick-and-fast, Rado’s absence will likely be felt. With their Europa League hopes and Puchar Polski progression both hanging in the balance, and their lead at the top of the Ekstraklasa down to just a single point, there couldn’t be a worse time for Legia to lose their star man.