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- Aug 1, 2010
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Europa League success may save Lech Poznan coach José María Bakero from the sack, but he faces a relegation battle
Lech Poznan hosted Polonia Warsaw in the Polish Cup on Sunday, a game brought forward into the chill of the winter break to give Lech match practice before the second leg of their Europa League last-32 tie against Braga.
But this was a game with resonance far beyond the confines of the cup: this was a battle between two differing versions of the same philosophy on how the modern Polish club should be constructed, and another chapter in the increasingly bitter personal battle between the former Barcelona striker José María Bakero and Polonia's owner, Jozef Wojciechowski.
In 2008 Polonia were promoted to the first division. Not by finishing near the top of the second division, as traditionalists might demand, but by buying Groclin Grodzisk, who had finished third in the top flight. Not only did Groclin have a number of good players; they also, crucially, had a first division licence. Wojciechowski merged the two clubs, took the majority of Groclin's players and their licence, but stayed in Warsaw.
Groclin had seemed one of the flag-bearers for the new age of Polish football, one of the small, professionally run new clubs that sprang up in the early part of the last decade and threatened to dethrone the grandees still struggling along in their post-communist torpor.
They were based in the Polish west, in the village of Grodzisk in rural Wielkopolska, where the potato fields stretch as far as the eye can see. Their owner, Zbigniew Drzymala, had made his fortune manufacturing the covers for car-seats; his company was called Groclin after the first letters of his home village and Clinton in the US, where he lived in his 20s.
He realised the football club was a useful marketing ploy, but he also had an emotional attachment to the Dyskobolia club on which he based his team, having been an 800m runner there as a teenager.
They twice won the Polish Cup, twice won the Ekstraklasa Cup, and twice finished as runners-up in the league. In 2003-04, they put Hertha Berlin and Manchester City out of the Uefa Cup. But with a limited fanbase made up largely of workers at the Inter Groclin Auto factory, there was a ceiling on how far Groclin could go, and Drzymala decided he wanted out.
A proposed merger with Slask Wroclaw fell through, at which Wojciechowski, who made his fortune in construction and was last year linked with a takeover of Leicester, pounced.
That killed Groclin, but it also killed Polonia's reputation as one of eastern Europe's most romantic clubs. Founded by the Warsaw intelligentsia, their players fought in the Warsaw Uprising in 1944, leading the communist government to regard the club as dangerously independent.
The state ensured their budget was never sufficient for them to rise higher than the second division, which gave them a certain cachet; now they are just a palimpsest of various uneasy mergers, like almost everybody else.
Jacek Zielinski, the Groclin coach, stayed on after the merger and led the new entity to fourth, but that wasn't enough for Wojciechowski, who was quickly establishing a reputation as one of the most impatient club owners in eastern Europe. He appointed Boguslaw Kaczmarek, who had served as assistant to the national team with Leo Beenhakker. He took 10 points from his first four games, but was then sacked for his supposedly negative tactics.
In came Jacek Grembocki, who took Polonia into the Europa League, but was dismissed early last season. Dusan Radolsky, his replacement, departed after two months with Polonia 13th in the league.
It was then that Wojciechowski turned to Bakero, who had been out of work for a little over a year, having served on Ronald Koeman's coaching staff at Valencia. He had been recommended by Polonia's Dutch director of football, Tony Slot, and kept Polonia up, which reputedly earned him a bonus of 25% of the club's stock.
Last summer, though, Bakero and Wojciechowski fell out. Bakero complained about the way Wojciechowski would buy and sell players almost on a whim, while Wojciechowski complained that Bakero was spending too much time in Spain. Bakero resigned, only to change his mind and ask for his job back. Wojciechowski accepted, but appointed the former national team coach Pawel Janas as sports director, with Slot staying on as Bakero's personal adviser.
After significant investment in the summer, Polonia started the season well enough, taking 13 points from their first five games, but Wojciechowski became frustrated at Bakero's reluctance to play two out-and-out forwards, straining their relationship further. It was broken when Wojciechowski created what he called "the group of 12", essentially a panel of 12 supposed experts, including himself, former players, the press officer and other advisers, who would mark each player in the game, with the one ranking lowest to be omitted from the next starting line-up.
For the sixth game of the season, away at Korona Kielce, Wojciechowski demanded that the Spanish holding midfielder Andreu be dropped, claiming he made the side too defensive. He was left out, Polonia suffered their first defeat of the season, and Bakero was sacked.
Last November Lech also sacked their coach, Jacek Zielinski. He had led them to a first league title in 17 years the previous season, and seemed to be at the forefront of the reconstruction of a team already reaping the benefits of the new stadium that comes with being a Euro 2012 host – even if various concerns over safety and a leaking roof have taken off the lustre in recent weeks.
Euro 2012, as Wojciechowski has pointed out repeatedly, gives certain teams an advantage – he is particularly furious that Legia Warsaw's stadium is being renovated essentially as a training ground for Euro 2012, while Polonia's will receive no investment.
Lech's basis is really little different from that of Polonia, having emerged in its present form through a merger with Amica Wronki, another of the thrusting young teams from the Wielkopolska countryside now shifted to Poznan, the major city of the region.
League form deserted Lech this season, heaping pressure on a coach who had been destabilised by defeat to Sparta Prague in the third qualifying round of the Champions League. Bakero was appointed as Zielinksi's successor in November, his first game in charge being the 3-1 win over Manchester City in the Europa League.
Since then, six league games have brought two wins, three draws and a defeat, but Lech have progressed through the group stage of the Champions League, and beat Braga 1-0 in the home leg of their Europa League meeting.
European progress may save him, but if not, those draws will rapidly have to become wins if Bakero is not rapidly to follow Zielinski. The cup now cannot save him, Sunday's clash of the two former rivals from rural Wielkopolska, of Bakero and Wojciechowski, of Euro 2012 investment and personal wealth, having ended in a 1-0 win for Polonia thanks to an own goal from the Colombian defender Manuel Arboleda.
Both now face a relegation battle. Remarkably, in a packed lower half of the league, Lech stand just two points above the relegation zone, and Polonia a place above them. It shouldn't happen, but it could be that in the merger to find something apparently greater, one of the two teams from the Wielkopolska villages finds only the second division.
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