After the 4-1 win in Poznań last Thursday, Fiorentina are firm favourites to reach the semi-final stage of the Europa Conference League. Lech arrive in Florence faced with a seemingly impossible task, but they can look back to their previous visit to the Stadio Artemio Franchi for inspiration.
Before we take a look at how that game went, let’s see how Lech’s previous visits to Italy turned out. The Polish club have been competing in Europe since 1978, but they didn’t meet a Serie A team until 2009.
The 2008/09 season saw Lech Poznań competing in the UEFA Cup. Having finished fourth in the Ekstraklasa, they only qualified because the team above them, Dyskobolia, merged with Polonia Warsaw and were not allowed take their place in Europe. Lech needed to begin the campaign at the very earliest stage, the first qualifying round.
On their way to the group stage they defeated Grasshoppers of Switzerland and Austria Vienna. Despite winning just one of their four group games, away to Feyenoord, they finished the group in third place which was enough to qualify for the Round of 32.
Fiorentina had begun the season in the Champions League, but a third-place finish in the group meant they also joined Lech in the UEFA Cup.
The draw pitted Lech with Udinese, with the first leg in Poznań on February 19th. After a scoreless first half, the home side fell 2-0 behind ten minutes after the interval. Fabio Quagliarella had put Udinese ahead and an own goal doubled their lead.
With the game into the last ten minutes, it looked all over for Lech until Hernán Rengifo pulled one back. Things got even better when the scorer of the own goal, Manuel Arboleda, levelled the tie six minutes from time.
That same night, Fiorentina had lost their home game to Ajax. A week later the sides were back in action. Udinese had the advantage of two away goals, but when the Peruvian Rengifo opened the scoring after 13 minutes, Lech were now in the driving seat.
The score remained the same until half time but 12 minutes after the break Simone Pepe equalised for Udinese. The Italian side were now ahead on away goals, and when Antonio Di Natale scored in added time, it was all over for Lech.
Fiorentina, too, had taken the lead in their game, Alberto Gilardino levelling the tie on aggregate. Just when it looked like there would be extra-time in Amsterdam, Ajax found a late goal, and Fiorentina, just like Lech, were out of Europe.
Two seasons later, 2010/11, while Fiorentina had failed to even qualify for Europe, Lech’s sixth league title gave them a place in the Champions League. Having come past Inter Baku of Azerbaijan on penalties, Lech went out to Sparta Prague in the third qualifying round.
They now had the consolation of a play-off match to reach the group stage of the Europa League. A 1-0 win in the first leg away to Dnipro was enough to see Lech through, but they were now landed with a tough draw. They were placed in Group A, alongside Manchester City, Juventus, and Red Bull Salzburg.
Lech’s very first game in the group landed them with a trip to Turin. They took on Juventus at the Stadio Olimpico on September 16th, and within half an hour the visitors had shocked everyone by taking a 2-0 lead. Both goals were scored by a young Latvian striker who had just joined the Polish club, Artjoms Rudnevs.
The opener came from the penalty spot, Felipe Melo the player who gave away the penalty. For the second Rudnevs scored with a close-rage scissor kick after a shot blocked by Alexander Manninger, the ball finding Rudnevs all alone in front of goal. A mix-up at the back let Giorgio Chiellini in to pull one back for Juventus just before the break.
Five minutes after the interval and Chiellini scored again to level the game. From a corner-kick, the Lech keeper Krzysztof Kotorowski came out but failed to clear the ball and Chiellini was there to poke it home. When Alessandro Del Piero scored with a spectacular long-range effort, the comeback looked to be complete, until Rudnevs scored with a similar shot. His goal in added time completed his hat-trick and gave Lech an unexpected 3-3 draw away to Juventus.
Lech lost just one game in the group, a 3-1 defeat away to Manchester City, but they beat the English side by the same scoreline in Poland. They also drew their home game with Juventus, Rudnevs again the scorer, and finished the group in second place, level on points with City.
Juventus were five points behind, having amazingly drawn all six group games and were out of the competition. Lech were drawn to face Braga in the next round, where Rudnevs scored the only goal in their 1-0 win at home. However, a 2-0 loss in Portugal meant their adventure was over. Braga went on to reach the final, losing 1-0 to Porto in the final in Dublin.
Which brings us to the 2015/16 season, and their meeting with Fiorentina. While Fiorentina qualified automatically for the group stage, Lech needed to come through the play-off round. Here, they saw off Hungarian side Videoton, with a 4-0 aggregate win.
Earlier they had competed in the Champions League qualifying rounds, winning against Sarajevo but losing out to Basel.
Fiorentina and Lech were drawn in Group I, alongside Basel and Belenenses of Portugal. The sides faced each other in Florence on matchday three, Fiorentina having lost at home to Basel and won away to Belenenses, while Lech had drawn at home with the Portuguese club and lost away to Basel, again.
October 22nd was the fixture date, and Lech’s plans were disturbed when the Slovenian airline due to bring them to Florence the day before the game never arrived in Poland due to technical problems. Lech were forced to take a later flight, which saw them miss the planned training session at the Artemio Franchi and the press conference, as they only arrived in Florence at midnight.
The authorities were more worried about the arrival of the Lech Ultras. They had been involved in clashes when they travelled to Sarejevo, and a racist banner during the match also landed the club in trouble with UEFA.
In their recent home game with Belenenses, the Lech curva organised a strike protesting against UEFA’s decision to donate one Euro from every ticket sold to help refugees. On that occasion they displayed a banner outside the ground which read ‘Let’s Stop Islamization’.
While Paulo Sousa’s Fiorentina were the surprise leaders in Serie A, Lech’s poor start to the season saw them at the bottom of the Ekstraklasa. On paper, the perfect opportunity to gain important points towards qualifying from the group, and for Sousa a chance to try some players who hadn’t been given much game time.
One of these was Giuseppe Rossi, with Pepito on his way back from a long injury layoff. Luigi Sepe was between the posts, Verdú was also given a starting role, as were Ante Rebić and Mario Suárez. Khouma Babacar also slotted in up front, but the turnover didn’t work and Lech came away with a deserved win.
The first half, played in front of a more than half-empty Franchi, ended scoreless. In the 62nd minute, 18-year-old striker Dawid Kownacki came on as a Lech replacement, and he took just three minutes to break the deadlock. His shot did take a deflection off Nenad Tomović which took it past Sepe.
The youngster then went off with an injury 12 minutes after scoring, but his replacement, Maciej Gajos, also made his presence felt. With eight minutes left to play, a free kick was floated into the box towards the far post, Dariusz Dudka played it back into the middle where Gajos struck a first-time shot to the back of the net.
There was time for a late Pepito Rossi goal but also a red card for Rebić.
This was a poor result, against a team struggling in the Polish league and who had just sacked their manager, bringing in Jan Urban. It also left Fiorentina bottom of the group, and their next game would see them travel to Poland.
In Poznań Sousa chose Polish midfielder Jakub Błaszczykowski, along with Federico Bernardeschi and Josip Iličić. It was Iličić who scored both goals, one in each half in a 2-1 win.
Fiorentina then drew away to Basel and won at home with Belenenses, while Lech drew in Portugal and lost at home to the Swiss side.
Fiorentina finished as runners-up, three points behind Basel, but Lech went out, five points behind Fiorentina in third. Sousa’s side went out to Tottenham Hotspur in the next round.
While Lech’s European campaign ended in failure, they did have that win in Florence, becoming the only Polish club to ever win a European game away to an Italian club.
It will take another history making night in Florence for them to remain in this competition, but they will be determined to at least repeat the feat of Jan Urban’s team in 2015.