"Polish Benitez" Maciej Skorza working wonders at Lech Poznan
Here is a nice trivia question for you. Who was the first coach to have beaten Pep Guardiola at the start of his career at Barcelona in the summer of 2008? It might be tempting to name the wily Croat Sergio Kresic, who masterminded the famous Numancia win over Barca at the start of the season in Spain, but the right answer lies elsewhere. Maciej Skorza is the man -- his Wisla Krakow drew the Catalans in the third qualifying round of the Champions League, were thrashed 4-0 at Camp Nou, but proceeded to take a small revenge in Poland by a 1-0 scoreline. That didn't really matter, but the historic fact remains.
One of the most interesting angles of the battle is that, at just 36 years of age at the time, Skorza was younger than Guardiola, but quite experienced already. His story is quite unique in Poland, because he never had qualities to be a footballer, but had always dreamed of becoming a coach. When he was 13, Skorza told his classmates and teachers that he would manage the national team one day. He even frequently traveled to Warsaw just to watch the training sessions of Legia, writing down notes for himself. Nobody took him seriously back then, but that aspiration was partially achieved much earlier than even Skorza himself expected.
As a student at the academy of physical education, Skorza wrote a thesis on Legia's training methods, and eventually was recommended to Pawel Janas, who worked at the Warsaw club in mid-90s. After preparing brilliant analysis of their Champions League rivals, the youngster impressed the coach who promoted him to his assistant. The partnership continued when Janas worked with Poland's Under-21 team, and eventually during Janas' spell with the national team between 2003 and 2006.
This scenario is somewhat similar to the way Andre Villas-Boas won the admiration of Bobby Robson and Jose Mourinho. Like Villas-Boas, Skorza impressed everyone with his tactical knowledge. Orest Lenczyk, one of the most respected specialists in the country, said about Skorza: "I listened to his speeches and thought to myself - he will be a great coach! I am satisfied that I was right."
With Janas sacked following the disappointing performance from Poland at the 2006 World Cup, Skorza was released by the Polish FA as well, and started a remarkable adventure on his own. Having been named Wisla coach in the summer of 2007, he inherited a team in total disarray and led them to one of the most convincing title triumphs in recent history. According to the man himself, his work was significantly influenced by Rafa Benitez, who hosted Skorza for internship at Liverpool for two weeks. Skorza was trying to base his tactics on the Spaniard's ideas, and some nicknamed him "the Polish Benitez".
Not everything always went according to plan, though. Wisla won their second title in a row in 2009, but then lost to Levadia Tallinn of Estonia in the Champions League qualifiers in a disastrous performance that left a deep scar. Eventually, Skorza was relieved of his duties before the 2009-10 season ended and found himself on the bench of Legia. In 2012, the young coach was close to leading the team from the capital to their first title for six years, but Legia fell apart spectacularly down the stretch, winning just once in their last five fixtures, and eventually finished third. Skorza was heavily criticized for the fiasco, and ended up going to work at Ettifaq FC in Saudi Arabia for a while to get away from the Polish spotlight.
Now he is back as coach of Lech Poznan, ready to prove Legia wrong and steal the title from them. With two fixtures to go in Polish Ekstraklasa, Lech lead the champions by a point in a dramatic race that will go down to the wire.
When Skorza was named Lech's coach in September, the club seemed to be in a deep crisis. Robert Lewandowski starred in Poznan when they were last crowned champions in 2010, but ever since the club's notoriously over-demanding fans have been left disappointed. They were especially embarrassed when Lech lost to Stjarnan of Iceland in Europa League qualifiers at the start of this season -- the shock was such that the supporters actually began cheering for the visitors and whistled their own players. Coach Mariusz Rumak had to leave, and Skorza inherited a team that started the season quite poorly.
The change was gradual, as the new coach won over his troops, and Lech progressed as weeks went by. Contrary to his experience at Legia in 2011-12, Skorza managed to improve the performances, and his team saved their best form for the most crucial moment. They won six out of last seven fixtures, including the massive 2-1 success away at Legia, where the team's best young prodigy, the 20-year-old midfielder Karol Linetty, scored a majestic solo goal.
Linetty, who is likely to move to England or Germany in the summer, improved under Skorza's guidance, and so did Dawid Kownacki, who only celebrated his 18th birthday in March. Dubbed the new Lewandowski by some, Kownacki is probably less naturally talented, but he is not lacking self-confidence, having bet with the fans that he will score at least 10 times this season. With only four goals to his name so far, he will likely have to donate 5,000 euros to charity.
Two unexpected heroes who have flourished under Skorza are Finns: Imposing centre-back Paulus Arajuuri and industrious midfield schemer Kasper Hamalainen. Left-back Barry Douglas, formerly of Dundee United, also proved to be a revelation, and even scored an important goal in a home win over Legia in March.
"It has been a strange season for us. At first Lech looked hopeless and lost to amateurs from Iceland. Now they are close to winning the title. Everything has changed thanks to Skorza. He asked to be patient and give him time -- and that seems to have worked out. Lech's budget is not even close to that of Legia, but now the supporters believe that they can finish first," as told to ESPN FC by Radoslav Nawrot, an experienced reporter for Gazeta Wyborcza.
There are many fans in Poland who dislike the rich and dominant Legia, and thus are behind Lech ahead of their crunch away fixture at Gornik Zabrze on Wednesday night. If Skorza manages to take the three points, he will be very close to winning the third championship title in his career. At the age of 43, he has already worked at three of the biggest clubs in the country, and would dearly love to enjoy a good run in Europe next season.
Who knows; maybe Lech will not fail against minnows from Estonia or Iceland, but rather qualify for the Champions League group stages, where Skorza could even meet Guardiola again, or maybe Bayern frontman Lewandowski could make an emotional homecoming. That is still a distant dream for now, but dreams tend to come true sometimes. Just ask Benitez, who has always believed he is destined to return to Real Madrid, or the 13-year-old Maciej Skorza who knew that he must become a top coach.
Michael Yokhin is ESPN FC's European football writer. Follow him on Twitter: @Yokhin