This week sees the Jupiler Pro League’s two Champions League representatives mark their entry into Europe’s top competition. Neither Racing Genk or Standard Liège are guaranteed a smooth passage into the group stages. The first of the two previews concerns tonight’s clash between Racing Genk and Partizan, which takes place at the Cristal Arena and kicks off at 1945 BST/2045 CET.
While Genk were surprise champions, they most certainly merited their title with attacking football, that was easy on the eye. Jelle Vossen and Marvin Ogunjimi proved potent upfront, with Vossen starting the season like a house on fire and finishing with 20 league goals. The engine room was efficiently controlled by captain David Hubert and Hungarian midfielder Tözsér Daniel, arguably the JPL’s best set-piece exponent while the loss of Joao Carlos was compensated by a new defensive combination of Eric Matoukou (who looks set for Dnipro) and Torben Joneleit.
The one player, who attracted most attention of course, was the goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois, who is the major departure from the club during the off-season. A hugely talented shot-stopper between the sticks, he had originally intended to stay another year at Genk, no matter what the terms of his eventual transfer were. However, as Genk held out for a sizeable fee, he stamped his feet loud enough and often enough to force through a €9m move to Chelsea, although he was immediately loaned out to Atletico Madrid.
No direct replacement has yet been sought for Courtois and that is very much the story of Genk’s summer. Their squad has a lot of good players and could be described as small but beautifully formed with 17 outfield players. Several players have been on trial, including Bulgarian striker Yevgeni Pavlov and Guilherme, seen as a replacement for Chris Mavinga, who returned to parent club Liverpool before signing for Rennes. A left-back would therefore be handy to provide competition for Daniel Pudil but as it stands, Genk are the only Belgian side not to have made a signing during the transfer window.
Genk’s form has been reasonable and there are plenty of encouraging signs, although Vercauteren is typically refusing to keep his feet planted anywhere but on the ground. A lively 3-1 win over Olympique Lyonnais was accompanied by the manager’s view that Lyon were far from their best, alhough Lyon did field a very strong side on paper. Genk’s ability to win the ball high up the pitch then find the strikers quickly hurt Lyon and proved decisive. Not much can be read into an experimental side’s 4-1 thrashing by an excellent Bayer Leverkusen outfit. Wingers Dugary and Bakx Istvan were deployed as full-backs with French-Tunisian midfielder Fabien Camus the main bright spot.
There was also a narrow 1-0 victory in the Belgian Supercup against Standard Liège. In front of far from a packed crowd, Genk held out for most of the game with ten men after Jelle Vossen’s red card. The winning goal came from Tözsér and Partizan will hope not to concede any needless free-kicks just outside the penalty box. David Hubert admitted that his side had to dig deep and that it once again will be not be easy this evening:
“The Supercup was not our best match,” he told La Dernière Heure. But we managed to win with ten and we kept a clean sheet. We also played to a high level against Lyon and Trabzonspor. We are confident. Our ambition is to qualify but we know it will not be straightforward. We will try to go to Belgrade with a lead. We cannot leave space between the lines and allow them chances to score.”
Genk’s opponents are Serbian title winners Partizan, who are not exactly an unknown quantity. They knocked out Anderlecht in the play-off round of last year’s Champions League in highly dubious circumstances. First of all, a clear goal from Romelu Lukaku was disallowed for offside, despite the striker so clearly being at worst level with the final defender. To compound matters, the resulting penalty shoot-out was allowed to take place on a penalty spot, which was anything but fit for purpose.
Partizan will field a much changed side compared with eleven months ago. Their best known player Mladen Krstajic has now retired to become the club’s sporting director while experienced winger Ivica Iliev and sharp-shooting striker Cleo have left for Poland and China respectively. Calamitious goalkeeper Radisa Ilic has been usurped by another gaffe-prone (but international) goalie in Vladimir Stojkovic, whose career trajectory has taken a downward path in recent years.
They do have new signing Nemanja Rnic, who just joined from Anderlecht and Marko Scepovic, brother of former Club Brugge striker Stefan. Rnic could well be up against Kevin De Bruyne, who will fancy his chances against a player who never cut the mustard in Brussels. Their coach Aleksandar Stanojevic has tried shifting the pressure onto the Belgians saying that “they are further on than we are and we are missing our fluency and a leader.”
Genk : Köteles, Anele, Nadson, Joneleit, Pudil, Buffel, Hubert, Tözsér, De Bruyne, Vossen, Kennedy
Partizan : Stojkovic, Rankovic, Rnic, Ivanov, Volkov, Medo Kamara, Illic, Vukic, Babovic, Eduardo, Scepovic
Prediction: Racing Genk 1-0 Partizan
Vercauteren believes this game will not to be too open although I expect Genk to take the game to their opponents. If Vossen has his scoring boots on, then it could be a win by a more comfortable margin but I will err on the side of caution.