Poland’s “Cup of a thousand teams” finally reached its conclusion this weekend, in Warsaw’s National Stadium, where a second-half strike from former Southampton striker Marek Saganowski handed Legia Warsaw their seventeenth Polish Cup title against great rivals Lech Poznań.
by Ryan Hubbard
While the main tournament itself began in July 2014 with 52 lower-league teams, an arduous process of finding those participants began twelve months earlier, with an almost uncountable number of clubs from the very foot of the Polish football pyramid. Preliminary cups fed into regional cups, in-turn into provincial cups, and finally into the national competition. There, with a seeding system and pre-ordained draw designed to keep the best teams apart for as long as possible, it’s of no surprise that Saturday’s final saw the country’s two leading clubs face-off in the capital.
The meeting between Legia and Lech was the third of four this season, with their final league encounter, also in Warsaw, taking place next Saturday. It was also the fifth time that the two clubs had met at this stage of the competition, with Lech having lifted the trophy previously in 1988 and 2004, and Legia emerging victorious in both 1980 and 2011.
But despite their status as the country’s top-two, both had precarious obstacles to navigate on their way to this year’s showpiece event.
It took extra-time to separate Lech and Jagiellonia Białystok at the last sixteen stage, with the Kolejorz’s eventual 4-2 victory slightly flattering them. Drawn against third-tier opposition in both the quarter-final and semi-final; they made easy work of Znicz Pruszków, before a 3-1 defeat at surprise package Błękitni Stargard Szczeciński was eventually turned around at home after extra-time, winning 5-1 after the visitors had been reduced to ten men in the first half.
Legia also scored two extra-time goals in their third-round game with Pogoń Szczecin, before edging past Śląsk Wrocław in the quarter-final after 210 minutes and penalties. Their two-legged semi-final against Podbeskidzie Bielsko-Biała was much more straightforward, winning 6-1 on aggregate.
Some of the pre-game talk had centred around off-the-field issues, rather than the teams’ performances on it; with the rivalry, and historic incidents between the two sets of fans, dragged back into the limelight. The most recent finals between the pair had been plagued by problems, with the 2004 clashes in Warsaw, and the so-called ‘Battle of Bydgoszcz’ seven years later, highlighted.
Saturday’s event though, seemed to go off largely without a hitch.
Security for the game was described by the PZPN press officer Jakub Kwiatkowski as “like the prison of Alcatraz”. 1,400 law enforcement officers were in attendance, in what had been regarded the most secure facilities in the whole of Poland; while plans were put in place for the transport of Lech supporters to the stadium upon their arrival in Warsaw – avoiding contact with their rivals wherever possible. Inside the ground, 10,000 fans of each club were housed at opposite ends, with 20,000 neutrals and a buffer zone separating them.
And rather than the shameful events in Bydgoszcz four years ago, neutrals were treated to spectacular visual displays from both sides of the ground; both sets of fans bringing along multiple tifo displays, and stockpiles of pyrotechnics.
The action on the pitch was entertaining too, as both sides set out early to make a mark on the game. While Legia created opportunities, it was Lech who had the lion’s share of both possession and chances in the early stages: Dawid Kownacki’s tame effort from a Zaur Sadaev cross coming closest to opening the scoring.
That was however until the 20th minute, when the deadlock was broken. A free-kick on the right-hand side was swung inwards by Scottish full-back Barry Douglas towards Sadaev; and although the Russian was out-jumped by Tomasz Jodłowiec, the Legia midfielder could only divert the ball goalwards, and past the stranded Dušan Kuciak.
It was no more than Lech deserved, and they in fact could have doubled their lead minutes later; an excellent Sadaev surge finished off with a weak shot, which Kuciak allowed to roll comfortably wide.
Failing to capitalise on their dominance, there was a sense that Lech could come to regret their wastefulness, and alarm bells started to ring as early as the 23rd minute, when Lech keeper Maciej Gostomski found himself outside his area, unable to deal with a Jodłowiec punt forward. Stranded, luckily for him Saganowski was unable to direct his header towards the empty net.
But on the half-an-hour mark, Gostomski was made to pay for another error when, under pressure from Saganowski he flapped at a Michał Kucharczyk corner, allowing the advancing Jodłowiec to cancel out his earlier mistake by diverting the ball into the net with his stomach.
Lech continued their attacking intent, but lacking any composure in front of goal, thy went into the break on level terms, and seemingly never returned for the second period.
Clearly receiving a few choice words from Henning Berg during the break, it was Legia who re-emerged as the dominant force; and within ten minutes of the restart, they had turned the game on its head. Another Legia corner was dealt with poorly by the Kolejorz defence, and when Tomasz Brzyski returned Gostomski’s punched clearance back into the box, Saganowski was on hand to tap-in at the back post.
After going behind, Lech struggled to get their foot back in the game; and it was Legia who created the better chances, while their lead never looked in doubt. With the game petering out, any hopes the Lech had for a late equaliser were extinguished when Douglas correctly received a second yellow after challenging Michał Żyro with a leading elbow – one which forced the Polish international from the pitch, and left him bleeding profusely. Legia deservedly held on for their fourth title in five years, and the Wojskowi now take a huge psychological advantage into next weekend’s important league fixture.
Respectfully clapped by the winners when receiving their silver medals, the majority of the dejected Lech Poznań players remained pitchside as Ivica Vrdoljak lifted the trophy – a far cry from the scenes which greeted the conclusion of their final in Bydgoszcz.
After last year’s fan boycott, the high-risk status of this game was to be the true measure of whether the final of the PZPN’s revamped competition could be an organisational success. Thanks to the spectacles both on and off the pitch, as well as the lack of trouble outside of the ground, the competition may well be turning a corner.