17 February ~ It is a telling statistic that no Polish side has won a tie in Europe after the winter break since 1991. Twenty years ago it was Legia Warsaw who beat Sampdoria in the quarter-finals of the Cup-Winners Cup. It was so long ago that Arsenal's Wojciech Szczesny's father Maciej was in goal for Legia. Now it's Lech Poznan's chance to turn the tide when they take on Portuguese side SC Braga in the Europa League tonight.
That 1991 Legia side were defeated at the semi-final stage by Manchester United, who went on to beat Barcelona in the final in Rotterdam. José María Bakero played for the losing finalists that day and now he will try to convince the Lech players they can do well against a side that impressed in Champions League earlier this season. Bakero was mysteriously employed by Polonia Warsaw last year when he apparently thought that he had applied for the Polish national team position. ("Polonia" is Spanish for Poland after all.) After being fired by the eccentric owner of Polonia, Bakero stayed in Poland and was snapped up by Lech soon after.
Contrary to previous games in Europe the ground won't be full as UEFA have declared parts of it to be "unsafe". This is good news at least for the people living in the nearby blocks of flats which won't be trembling when Lech fans jump up and down (unlike other arenas built from scratch for Euro 2012, Lech's stadium has just been modernised – and it shows). UEFA initially decided to reduce the capacity by half but on appeal it was decided to let in those who had already bought tickets, meaning there will be 29,000 people in the ground with over 10,000 seats empty.
Nature may act in Lech's favour. The weather forecast says it will minus seven tonight, but that will be genial compared to the minus 28 during the last home group game against Juventus. The Polish season's winter break doesn't end until next week so Lech have no recent form, but they impressed in the group stage, knocking out Juventus and beating Manchester City 3-1 at home. Lech's success owes a lot to good marketing and superb scouting contacts, especially in the Balkans. That's how they got excellent Bosnian playmaker Semir Stilic who will be surely sold to a western European club for good money. Latvian Artjoms Rudnevs, who scored a hat-trick in the 3-3 away draw with Juventus, has been impressive too
The winner of Lech v Braga will play either Sparta Prague or Liverpool. The latter played Lech in the European Cup in 1984, when over 10,000 people turned up at the airport to see what was then Europe's most famous club side. Liverpool won 5-0 on aggregate but they would be given a much harder game now. Maciej Slominski futbolnet.pl