In their 1996 hit Three Lions, Frank Skinner and David Baddiel sang “Thirty years of hurt never stopped me dreaming”. It may have only been twenty years for Polish football fans, but they will be able to dream much more easily tonight, as Legia Warsaw put one foot into the Champions League group stage with a 2-0 victory over Irish champions Dundalk.
So far this season inconsistency has been a word synonymous with Legia; and coach Besnik Hasi did little to disassociate the two on Wednesday evening by selecting his twelfth different line-up in twelve competitive games. Four changes were made from the side which fell to defeat in Lublin on Saturday, with Igor Lewczuk, Vadis Odjidja Ofoe, Tomasz Jodłowiec and Nemanja Nikolić coming into the eleven; and as it did both at the weekend and in last week’s cup defeat in Zabrze, sloppiness set in early on.
Misplaced passes, a lack of control in the midfield, and breakdowns in the final third were evident throughout the first period, as neither side were able to create any really dangerous openings. The Irish champions’ closest effort – a free header from Patrick McEleney – sailed comfortably wide, while Michał Kucharczyk’s snap-shot from the edge of the box fizzed the wrong side of the post at the other end.
Keeper Arek Malarz had some choice words to direct at his team-mates following their loss to Górnik Łęczna on Saturday, and it seemed that similar may have been uttered in the dressing room at the break, as Legia emerged for the second half with a renewed energy.
They began to attack with speed and guile, and soon took control of the game; however when they did finally take the lead just before the hour mark, it was in slightly fortunate circumstances. The lively Nikolić managed to battle his way into the Dundalk box, before being allowed to turn and lay-off to the advancing Steeven Langil. The Martiniquais international fired a powerful, if slightly off-target shot, which struck the arm of Andy Boyle – an arm which was tucked behind his back. Harsh it may have been on the Lilywhites, but the German referee pointed to the spot and booked the defender for his justifiable protest; and Hungarian international Nikolić seized his opportunity by sending goalkeeper Rogers the wrong way.
For probably the first time in weeks, the goal spurred Legia to play with confidence; and the Polish champions soon began a period of dominance. A couple of chances fell to Kucharczyk, while a Langil effort sailed high-and-wide. Meanwhile Dundalk rallied late on, but were unable to test Malarz.
But just as the game looked to have petered out, substitute Aleksander Prijović combined with Jodłowiec, before the former chipped elegantly over the advancing Rogers to double the lead with the last kick of the game.
With two away goals now in the bank, Legia return to Warsaw for next Tuesday’s decider full of confidence, knowing they will have to concede twice to put their progression in doubt – in a stadium in which they haven’t conceded since the opening day of the Ekstraklasa season. They may not be hitting top gear just yet, but after a positive result in a potential banana-skin tie with so much at stake, finally Legia can begin to feel some confidence about the season ahead.
As for the rest of the country, they may not like Legia, but should the Wojskowi complete their qualification the world can finally be rid of jokes about “Uncles in Łódź” and the doubts surrounding Polish football’s place in Europe. Qualification for the Champions League and the associated riches may cement Legia’s place at the top for the next decade; but once national pride is restored, we hopefully will not have another 20-year wait for a Polish club to grace Europe’s main stage.
Dundalk FC – Legia Warszawa 0:0 (2:0) – AVIVA Stadium, Dublin, Ireland
Nikolić (pen) 56′, Prijović 90+3′
Dundalk FC: Gary Rogers – Sean Gannon, Patrick Barrett, Andy Boyle, Dane Massey – Stephen O’Donnell, Chris Shields (Robert Benson 76′) – John Mountney (Ronan Finn 64′), Patrick McEleney, Daryl Horgan – David McMillan (Ciaran Kilduff 79′).
Legia Warszawa: Arkadiusz Malarz – Łukasz Broź, Michał Pazdan, Igor Lewczuk, Adam Hlousek – Vadis Odjidja Ofoe (Michał Kopczyński 76′), Tomasz Jodłowiec, Thibault Moulin – Steeven Langil (Mihail Alexandrov 88′), Michał Kucharczyk – Nemanja Nikolić (Aleksander Prijović 83′).
Yellow Cards: O’Donnell 20′, Boyle 55′ – Odjidja Ofoe 44′, Hlousek 69′
Referee: Deniz Aytekin (GER)
Assistants: Guido Kleve, Markus Hacker (both GER)
Fourth Official: Jan Seidel (GER)
Additional Assistants: Tobias Welz, Benjamin Brand (both GER)