On February 17, 2011, Polish club team Lech Poznań will play the first leg of its UEFA Europa League Round of 32 fixture against Portugal’s Sporting Braga. The rematch will be one week later in Braga. Lech had a surprising run in the “group of death,” where it had to face Juventus F.C., Manchester City, and Red Bull Salzburg. Certainly very few believed that the team from Poland had a chance of making it out of the group. And then the unthinkable happened. The Polish side not only made it out of the group, but eliminated Juventus! That is huge success for a team from Poland’s first division. Lech tied the famous Italian club twice, 3-3 and 1-1 respectively. The second match was played on a snow-filled pitch in Poznań, and one Polish newspaper dubbed the game, “Snowy battle in Poznań.” Italian media claimed that the match official should not have allowed the game to be played. However, Juventus had not won a single match before the snowy showdown, so it is not as if its elimination from the UEFA Europa League can be blamed on one game with unfavorable playing conditions. Up to the Lech-Juve rematch, the Italian team did not deserve to advance from the group, Lech did. Overall, Lech won three of its six games, drawing twice, and eventually finishing in second place behind Man City. Juventus finished third in Group A, with a five point deficit to Lech!
As for the Round of 32, Sporting will be no pushover. Lech, however, should still be considered lucky, because in the draw it avoided strong teams such as Liverpool FC, AFC Ajax, or Villarreal CF. SC Braga’s squad is filled with good players, such as Alan, Lima, Matheus, and Hugo Viana. SC Braga does not have a history of rich successes like some of its fellow Portuguese league foes, such as SL Benfica and FC Porto. Aside from an Intertoto Cup triumph in 2008, Sporting only advanced to the UEFA Champions League group phase once—in this current 2010/2011 season—only to be ousted in the first round, losing to Arsenal London and Shakhtar Donetsk. The Braga team is the current Portuguese league runner-up.
Lech Poznań is not the first team that comes to mind when Polish club soccer is mentioned. Widzew Lódź, Górnik Zabrze, Wisła Kraków, and Legia Warsaw are those that achieved the greatest laurels for Polish club football in European Cups. Polish club teams have disappointed in recent years at European Cups, however. The last team to qualify for the UEFA Champions League group stage was Widzew Lódź, back in the 1996/1997 season.
Lech was in the UEFA Cup two seasons ago and won the Polish league title in 2010. One of the team’s stars is Colombian sensation Manuel Arboleda, who may soon play for the Polish national team. If Lech wins, it will have a chance to equal the success of former fellow Ekstraklasa foe Groclin Dyskobolia Grodzisk Wielkopolski, a team that advanced to the UEFA Cup third round during the 2003/2004 season.
Now to the original question posited in the headline. Sporting looks better on paper, as Lech lost one of its stars in the winter transfer window—Sławomir Peszko— who signed with Bundesliga member FC Cologne. Lech, however, has been the dark horse of the Europa League since September and was able to stun its rivals in the “group of death.” The dark horse in any tournament can be unpredictable and dangerous—remember Uruguay’s remarkable run at last year’s FIFA World Cup? And who says the dark horse from Poznań cannot advance as far as its potential permits? The Lech team is definitely inspired by its group phase success, and motivated to prove that was not a fluke. The team has inspiration to pull off more upsets. If the Polish club could handle Juventus, it can handle Sporting. Lech by a 4-3 aggregate on away goals, but expect a hard-fought war!