WARSAW, Poland -- Going into the Group F fixture against holders Real Madrid, hosts Legia Warsaw not only boasted the worst defensive record in this season's Champions League, but were also ordered to play the biggest match in their club's history behind closed doors.
Less than 60 seconds into the match, the Polish side were 1-0 down following a superb volley from Gareth Bale, and just over 30 minutes later Karim Benzema doubled the lead to set the scene for a clear Real victory in front of fewer than 1,000 spectators made up of club staff, journalists and security.
Under UEFA regulations, both clubs had been granted 75 tickets each for the official delegation including players and staff, and Real had been granted a further 200 VIP tickets, but those lucky enough to be in the stadium witnessed something incredible as Legia came back to lead 3-2 with goals from Vadis Odjidja-Ofoe, Miroslav Radovic and Thibault Moulin. Mateo Kovacic equalised soon after but in the end, it was Legia coach Jacek Magiera who was disappointed to have only picked up a point.
Legia's players deserve to be praised because life has not been easy for the Polish champions this season.
In mid-September, a radical element of their fans tried to storm into the away section in the 6-0 defeat to Borussia Dortmund. The Germans were already leading 3-0, after goals by Mario Gotze, Sokratis Papastathopoulos and Marc Bartra, when the focus switched from the pitch to the stands and the scent of pepper spray crept through the stadium.
Five were arrested, with the club taking action against 70 fans it considered to be involved. UEFA then charged the club with racist behaviour and crowd disturbances, and imposed a stadium ban for the Real Madrid match. But the violence did not end there.
Prior to the match at the Bernabeu a fortnight ago, a 5-1 victory for Los Blancos, violence broke out as an organised group of Legia fans threw bottles outside the stadium, with Spanish police later confirming 12 arrests were made on the night.
It has been incredibly sad to see such issues, given that the focus should have been on a club making their comeback to the biggest European stage after 21 years. Instead, the radical element of the fanbase has taken all the headlines away from the players.
The problems off the pitch have only been amplified by a horrible start to the Polish champions' domestic campaign too, which saw them slip down the Ekstraklasa table and sack their coach Besnik Hasi. They did not make much early progress under new boss Magiera, a former Legia player, either and by mid-October, following a 3-2 defeat at Pogon Szczecin, they slumped to 13th in the standings with only three wins and four draws from 12 games -- 12 points away from leaders Lechia Gdansk.
Back-to-back wins followed, but Legia are still way off their target in defence of their title and currently sit sixth, still 10 points adrift of top spot.
With bleak performances on the pitch, fan violence inside and outside stadiums, they have a lot to deal with. To add insult to injury, Legia's owners have publicly fallen out over the direction the club needs to take and how to react to the ongoing fan issues.
In mid-October, Dariusz Mioduski, the majority shareholder, announced he would no longer be involved with anything other than what is expected of him from the club's current deals. His boardroom partners Boguslaw Lesnodorski, president of the club since 2012, and Maciej Wandzel, have to take all decisions by a majority vote but have clashed repeatedly: mostly over the supporters.
Lesnodorski wants to hand back the club to the fans, saying "the real owners of Legia Warsaw are those investing their emotions" and suggested that shares could be sold to them to secure long-term success. But Mioduski believes the hooligan problem makes that impossible, stating: "My distinctive resistance is directed against the tolerance, and even the support of people who willing damage the club. There should be no place for such persons in the Legia family."
There seems to be no easy fix and, though Mioduski attended the Real match, the fall-out continues. "They are preparing for a legal battle," one Polish journalist told ESPN FC. "It could drag on for a while."
Legia should have been able to enjoy the prospect of playing against Real Madrid at home. Their 3-3 draw has to go down as one of the best in the club's history, but there was a distinct lack of celebration after the game.
"It's impossible to describe the feeling of playing in an empty stadium," Magiera said afterwards. "It would have been a completely different spectacle. It would have been like a final. It's a pity it didn't happen."
The empty stadium may have been crucial for Warsaw to get a result against Real, as the Spanish giants seemed to let go of the match because of the lack of atmosphere, but it does not detract from the overall feeling of deflation. "It was a strange game, especially with the stadium," Real superstar Bale admitted later on Spanish TV. "We had control of the game at 2-0, and we just lost concentration."
Outside the ground after the game, there was hardly anything to be seen. A few Real Madrid supporters waited quietly for the team bus to leave, but it felt like the match had never been played. There were no fans wearing their team jerseys; no chants; no fans talking through the 90 minutes and walking home. There was just a giant emptiness. Football without fans is nothing -- even though, on this occasion, it may have played its part in Legia picking up a point.
Ever since the Champions League draw, Legia fans had waited for the biggest match in club's history. They got their night to remember, but only the few inside the stadium will be able to tell tales about the night Legia nearly beat giants Real Madrid.