This Thursday evening Aston Villa will return to European football for the first time in 13 years (not including the qualifiers) with an away trip to Polish side Legia Warszawa, aka Legia Warsaw.
When the UEFA Europa Conference League draw was made, Villa were drawn in Group E alongside Legia Warsaw, AZ Alkmaar, and HŠK Zrinjski. Three teams that, if we're being brutally honest with ourselves, most of the Villa fanbase knew little about, myself included. That's not to speak for everybody of course, but if you're wanting a quick fix on knowing everything about Villa's European opposition over the next couple of months then we have you covered. Essentially we here at AVFC Faithful have done the hard work so you don't have to.
There will be more spotlights on both AZ and Zrinjski closer to those games, but for now we are focusing on Legia Warsaw.
Brief History and Current Form
Legia Warsaw are the most successful Polish club in history winning the Ekstraklasa (Polish League) a record 15 times along with 20 Polish Cups and 5 Polish Super Cups. However they haven't won the league for two years now after winning it back-to-back in 2020 and 2021. The following season (21/22) they finished in a disastrous 10th place after a nine game losing run led to one of the worst seasons in the club's history. The manager at that time, Czeslaw Michniewicz, was gone before the end of October 2021 which was followed by a disastrous couple of months under a caretaker manager before on-again, off-again manager Aleksandar Vukovic saw out the rest of Legia's terrible 2021/22 campaign where they would lose 14 games in the league, the worst in the club's history.
Last season (22/23), under new manager Kosta Runjaic, Legia were able to bounce back to a respectable second place finish, nine points behind champions Raków Częstochowa. They would also go on to win the Polish Cup by defeating the League Champions in a penalty shootout following a 0-0 draw in the final. Runjaic is still at the helm today and currently has his team sitting comfortably two points behind the league leaders with two games in hand having remained undefeated in their opening six league games.
As far as European success is concerned, Legia Warsaw have had very little of it. Having won the league so many times they often reach the qualifying stages of the UEFA Champions League but very rarely qualify for the group stages. The last time they did was in the 2016/17 season when they managed to finish 3rd in their group behind Borussia Dortmund and Real Madrid, and ahead of Sporting Lisbon. More recently, during their aforementioned disastrous 21/22 campaign, they found themselves in a Europa League group with Leicester City, Napoli and Spartak Moscow where they would finish bottom with 6 points. Qualifying for the UECL alongside Villa is the first time since 2021 that Legia have played European football.
Players To Look Out For
Legia Warsaw will likely play a system that features three at the back as they have done all season in both the league and in Europe. They utilize two wide players who can act as either wingbacks or attacking wingers, two central midfielders, along with three forward players in what looks like a 3-4-3 or a 3-4-1-2 formation.
The biggest threat to Villa on Thursday may come from the in-form Tomas Pekhart. The striker has scored 5 times so far this season in all competitions while also claiming 1 assist. Standing at 6ft 4in, Villa's defence will need to be wary of the big man on all set pieces and try to limit balls into the box from those two wide players. His strike partner Ernest Muçi is also a threat having scored 3 goals in 6 appearances.
Legia tends to go with both these players as a strike partnership with club captain Josué usually playing just behind them in the number 10 position. Josué is arguably the team's most creative player so shutting him down will be a priority for Villa's midfield. The former Porto man is also known for his aggressive high pressing and could well create problems throughout the game.
Aside from those attacking threats there's not much to fear in this Legia side. The defense in particular looks like the weakest area in the team despite only conceding 3 goals in the league so far. However, during their UECL qualification they have conceded a massive 13 goals in only 6 games.
One of Legia's biggest concerns is that they are without last season's best centre-back, Rafal Augustyniak, who is set to miss out with a thigh strain. This means they may well need to rely on a 35-year-old Artur Jedrzejczyk who lacks both discipline and pace. Failing that they may turn to one of their new signings in Steve Kapuadi, who has only started 1 game for the club, or the inexperienced Marco Burch, who has yet to make an appearance. Elsewhere the only other player worth mentioning is Yuri Ribeiro who some fans may remember from his short stint at Nottingham Forest.
Legia Warsaw play their home games at the Stadion Wojska Polskiego which in English translates to Polish Army Stadium. For those interested, it is named this due to it belonging to the Polish Armed Forces for many years before the City of Warsaw took ownership in recent years. It now officially goes by the new name of, wait for it, Stadion Miejski Legii Warszawa im. Marszałka Józefa Piłsudskiego. For obvious reasons I'm going to stick with Stadion Wojska Polskiego for now.
The Stadion Wojska Polskiego can hold up to 31,800 people, and when this stadium is full it can be an intimidating ground for any away side. You only need to take one look at the stadium during Legia's last UCL games to get an idea of how threatening they can make this venue appear. This will probably be the biggest challenge for Villa. Take a look at this great video by Groundhopper FC for more of an idea of just how loud the home fans can get for big games.
The Stadion Wojska Polskiego will be the largest stadium Villa will have to travel to during the UECL group stages, and although that means the biggest and probably loudest home crowd, it also means facilities should be top notch. One of the fears of going away from home in UEFA's third tier competition, for both players and fans, is how badly rundown some of the away stadiums can be. This should not be an issue here as the stadium was completely renovated between 2008 and 2011 and appears to have a modern feel to it. This should mean the Villa team have a relatively comfortable experience in the away dressing room and hopefully the travelling support are also looked after. If you are travelling to the game and require more details then make sure to check out My Old Man Said's handy guide right here: https://myoldmansaid.com/aston-villa-fans-to-expect-hold-back-after-legia-warsaw-game-and-other-info
How Villa Can Get The Win
So to summarise, Legia Warsaw are a big team with a lot of history who are currently fighting their way back to where they believe they belong. They're in great form in the Polish League following a couple of uneasy seasons, and seem to be scoring for fun along the way.
Villa will need to be fully aware of Legia's attacking threat but will be confident that they can score themselves given the Polish side's defensive frailties. The intimidating atmosphere generated by the home support may well be one of the biggest hurdles for Villa to overcome, so with all that in mind I can't help but feel Unai Emery will pick a strong side.
Although the UECL group stage can sometimes be a good place to try out some younger players, this fixture may be an exception. Villa are going to want a few experienced leaders out there so the likes of John McGinn, Emi Martinez, and at least one of Ezri Konsa or Pau Torres should all get starts on Thursday evening to help deal with both the frantic atmosphere and Legia's decent forward line.
There will undoubtedly be some rotation however, especially given Villa's trip to Stamford Bridge on Sunday afternoon. With this in mind, we can probably expect to see Youri Tielemans come in for either Luiz or Kamara. The Belgian international has more experience than most playing in these types of games and arguably deserves a start after his game changing display off the bench this past Saturday. Tielemans may also be joined by his international teammate Leander Dendoncker who is also experienced at this level. Clément Lenglet may come in for his debut as well but that may be a bit of a risk in this fixture, if there's a defensive change then we should maybe expect Calum Chambers to come in instead. Hopefully we can also see Alex Moreno return and get a few minutes under his belt as well, more likely off the bench though.
Elsewhere in the attack, Jhon Duran may well come in and should definitely fancy his chances against this dodgy Legia defense. He doesn't appear to be the type of character who would shrink in these high intense atmospheres either, if anything he may thrive on it.
All in all, whichever team Emery goes with should have enough quality to deal with this Legia Warsaw side. But with it being the first game, and also being away from home, it probably makes sense to go quite strong here and maybe play some younger players in the return fixture at Villa Park all going well.
Predicted Aston Villa lineup:
Kick off time: 17:45
Location: Stadion Wojska Polskiego, Warsaw, Poland
Channel: TNT Sports 2
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