With all the Belgian representatives negotiating a safe passage into the knockout stages, we can’t but excited about one making a Europa League. Standard Liege qualified impressively, but now face Polish side Wisła Kraków in the Round of 32. Polish football expert Ryan_Hubbard of EKSTRAKLASAreview tells us more about them.
It’s been an up-and-down season so far for Wisła Kraków…The defence of their 13th Polish League title hasn’t quite gone to plan for the Biała Gwiazda; they currently sit back in sixth position with a ten-point gap separating them from Ekstraklasa leaders Śląsk Wrocław. In fact, the only things that Wisła fans have really had to cheer about is their Puchar Polski (Polish Cup) run, and their miraculous progression to the Europa League knock-out rounds.
After only 1 win and three draws from their opening five league games, Dutch coach Robert Maaskant was placed under immense pressure from the Wisła faithful; the fans eager to see the club equal the 14-titles shared by Górnik Zabrze and Ruch Chorzów.
Despite their poor league showing, Wisła’s Champions League Qualifying campaign was going extremely well. After dispatching of Latvia’s Skonto Riga and Bulgarian champions Litex Lovech with relative ease, the play-off round saw them paired with Cypriot side APOEL Nicosia. The first leg in Kraków saw the home side claim a 1-0 victory, and Wisła headed to Cyprus with a great chance to become the first Polish side in 14-years to reach the Champions League Group stage…
…And they were just three minutes away from doing so. With APOEL leading the second leg 2-1 (Wisła winning on away goals), Ailton Almeida grabbed an 87th-minute goal to send the Cypriots through, and Wisła into the Europa League.
With their league form steadily improving, the club’s European campaign started to fall on the wayside. A 3-1 home defeat to Danish side OB Odense was followed by a heavy loss to FC Twente in Enschede meant that Wisła were practically out of the competition.
Even after a surprise 1-0 victory at home to Fulham – marred by Argentinian midfielder Gervasio Núñez’s play-acting resulting in the sending-off of Moussa Dembélé – finishing in the top-two was still just a pipe-dream for the Poles. The dream was stretched even further after the trip to Craven Cottage resulted in Wisła’s second 4-1 defeat of the campaign.
Following the disastrous trip to London, pressure was mounting hugely on Maaskant; and a 1-0 defeat to Cracovia in the Kraków derby just three days later was the final straw for the Wisła board. The Dutchman was fired just a few days later and replaced with club legend, and former interim coach, Kazimierz Moskal.
Despite starting off with a 1-0 defeat at home to Górnik Zabrze, Moskal’s Wisła took four wins from their next five games; including Europa League wins in Denmark and finally at home to Twente. Even when the final whistle was blown at the Henryk Reyman stadium, Wisła were resigned to dropping out of European competition thanks to Fulham leading Odense by two goals to one. But whilst still on the pitch, news reached Kraków of a Baye Fall equaliser in London; prompting mass celebrations in the South of Poland.
To say that Wisła have been poor this season is rather unfair – inconsistent is a more suitable description. But with a team blighted by injuries, it’s rather unsurprising that they’ve struggled to maintain the form which saw them within a whisker of Europe’s elite competition.
Club captain Radosław Sobołewski has only made seven league appearances this term, and has been out of contention since early October with an achilles injury; whilst star players Maor Melikson and Patryk Małecki also have only managed a similar number of games. Fortunately for Wisła, the latter two returned to the side before the winter break and have played a big part in the club’s winter training camp.
How They’ll Line Up
Before the winter break, Moskal favoured a 4-2-3-1 formation; but his first-choice starting eleven is still questionable. Wisła’s have a fairly big squad, which allows them to rotate fairly easily; but constant rotation could be the main reason that the White Star have struggled to maintain consistency during the season.
Sergei Pareiko is almost certain to start in goal, but beyond that it can only really be speculated. A back four will be the hardest to predict, with young Michał Czekaj making the least appearances, but reported to currently be in favour with Moskal for the centre-back spot. Former Leicester City full-back Michael Lamey is likely to start on the right, with either fellow Dutchman Kew Jaliens, or Costa Rican Junior Diaz favourites for the opposite side.
Maor Melikson is one of the first names on the Wisła teamsheet, likely to start in the attacking midfield role; whilst Cezary Wilk and Núñez sit in the more defensive-midfield roles.
One of either Tzvetan Genkov or Dudu Biton (on loan for the season from Charleroi) will start as the lone striker, with two from Andraz Kirm, Ivica Iliev and Patryk Małecki attacking out wide.
Player to Watch
Israeli-born Maor Meliksonjoined Wisła at the beginning of 2011 from Hapoel Beer’Sheva, and quickly began to turn heads – scoring 4 goals in 15 league appearances. His impressive performances in helping Wisła to lift the title earned him the accolade of “Revelation of the Season”, and also thrust him into the 2011 Ekstraklasa “Best XI”.His emergence also led to a conflict between the national associations of both Israel and Poland, both who wanted him to play for their respective National Teams (Melikson has a Polish mother). Having already made his début for Israel, the midfielder would have able to take advantage of a new FIFA rule which stated that a player could change his national allegiance, as long as he hasn’t played a competitive fixture.In his second appearance in an Israeli shirt, he netted twice in a 4-3 friendly loss against Ivory Coast. In September, Melikson announced that he wasn’t yet ready to play for either nation; but just last month he announced his intention to make himself available for his nation-of-birth.
After a fairly successful winter break, the home-leg against Standard will be the club’s first competitive fixture of 2012. The scheduled Polish Super Cup final against Legia Warszawa was supposed to take place on Saturday (11th), but concerns about the safety of the rival supporters in the new Stadion Narodowy led to the city of Warsaw cancelling the game.
Wisła will feel that the tie against Standard is winnable, although there is no doubt that it will be difficult. Standard will not fancy playing the first leg in Kraków, where temperatures at night have been recently dropping to around -20°c. However, both teams have to play in the same conditions, so the tie could come down to whoever can perform better in the extreme cold.
Standard will probably start off as favourites for the tie; but depending on which Wisła side turns up on the day, it isn’t necessarily going to be an easy passage for the Belgians.