We all love a good underdog story. It’s probably why we are all so encapsulated by Leicester City’s brilliant form in the Premiership. Things aren’t too dissimilar in the Ekstraklasa, Poland’s top flight division.
An unsatisfactory start to the season by some of the big teams – namely Wisła Kraków & Lech Poznań – combined with an exuberant push from the smaller teams has paved the way for an unlikely leader at the top of the table during the Winter break – Piast Gliwice, who sit five points clear of 2nd placed Legia Warsaw.It all seems hard to believe for the minnows from Gliwice who have spent so many years in the depths of the Polish footballing pyramid.
They could, all of a sudden, be vying for their first ever title which would make Gliwice the smallest title-winning Polish city since Chorzów in 1989. Piast have, at times, struggled to make a name for themselves in Polish Football. Their first season in the top division arrived in 2008 before being relegated just two years later. Despite this, their return to the Ekstraklasa in 2012 turned a few heads as they shot up to the table, finishing in an impressive 4th place.
They were unable to emulate this success for the following two seasons, as they drifted into the relegation dog-fight playoffs finishing 12th in both seasons. Pre-season expectations for 2016 were probably to push for a top half finish as opposed to having some breathing space at the top of the table – which is the position they’ve ended up in.
A vibrant start to the season for Piast Gliwice was fuelled by a derby win against their local rivals Górnik Zabrze on the 3rd match of the season. All of a sudden this performance triggered an exceptional run of form as Piast won seven of their next eight Ekstraklasa games, including nine points from victories against Poland’s traditional big three teams – Legia, Lech and Wisla.
A bit like Leicester, the big boys were all just waiting for the wheels to come off and for Piast to start slipping down the table, but the ‘Piastunki’ continued to defy expectations. By the end of November, Piast seemed to mould into a title-challenging team, they were scoring bags of goals, many of which were coming without reply.
A tough December schedule saw them fall to a 5-2 defeat at the hands of their rivals, Górnik Zabrze, before they regained their composure to cancel out Legia and Cracovia with consecutive draws against both sides. This was then followed up with an impressive 2-0 victory against a resurgent Lech Poznań. Piast were not going down without a fight in this race for the title.
Piast’s success has been mainly the result of their Czech coach, Radoslav Látal who has helped bring in a blend of hard working players to coincide with Piast’s bright talents – one of the youngest squads in the Ekstraklasa. Látal has anchored the defensive line by bringing in Marcin Pietrowski, the defensive midfielder from Lechia Gdansk, whilst Martin Nespor’s eight goals since signing from Sparta Prague looks like an exceptional coup for the league leaders.
The Ekstraklasa returns on February 13th with Piast Gliwice hoping to continue their unlikely run at the top of the table. They’ll face stiff opposition from the chasing pack including a very strong Legia Warsaw who managed to keep hold of their star striker Nemanja Nikolic who bagged 21 goals in 21 games for them.
Elsewhere, Cracovia Krakow continue to maintain their elegant form although their form may suffer a dip as their top goalscorer, Deniss Rakels, has recently been snapped up by Reading. Pogon Szczecin also ended the first half of the season on a high and Lech Poznań are coming on leaps and bounds since their disastrous start to the season.
Piast will be hoping to take the momentum that carried them through 2015 into the second part of the season. If they can dig deep and continue to grind out results before the league splits off into two, they could still be fighting for a chance of the title. Once the league splits, they’ll be playing against the seven other top Polish teams and then we’ll really see what this team is made of and whether dreams can become reality in Poland’s top division.