A summer of drama and uncertainty involving Belgium’s five biggest sides should ensure that the upcoming Jupiler Pro League season, which begins tonight, is fascinating and fiendishly impossible to predict. The biggest kid in the playground, namely Anderlecht, is smarting after a deeply disappointing third place last term, during which they also lost the best player in Belgium – Mbark Boussoufa. Club Brugge have decided after years of disappointment (no title since 2005) to start afresh, buying a new team in the off-season. Standard Liège, who came so close to a third title in four seasons, are once more in a rebuilding phase with not just the task of rebuilding the team but coming to terms with the post-D’Onofrio era now that new owner Roland Duchâtelet has bought the club. KAA Gent say “Goede Dag” to Trond Sollied for a third time and hope that the successful Norwegian can succeed where Franky Dury failed in last season’s play-offs. And reigning champions Racing Genk will be doing everything they can to add to their small squad and ensure a robust defence of their surprise but well-deserved title win. We have the other usual suspects minus Charleroi and Eupen, Mons are back and we welcome back a side from Leuven – Oud-Heverlee Leuven, who have been promised a new stadium IF they stay up for five years!
(Note – all predictions are for the regular season of 30 games).
Romelu Lukaku has often been the centre of attention due to his incredible talent and goalscoring ability for one so young, not to mention his formidable physique. However, with Anderlecht’s struggles last season, his sale now appears to be the key to securing the future success of the club, at least in the short-term. Chelsea are the only club he hopes to join and with Anderlecht looking to secure at least €15m net, there should be more than enough money in the kitty to attract former Standard duo Milan Jovanovic and Dieumerci Mbokani.
Lukaku’s departure is not the only high-profile exit, which could yet hit the Brussels giants. Argentine midfielder Lucas Biglia and Hungarian defender Juhász Roland have both had enough of life in the capital and having spent around a decade there between them, few would begrudge the duo a transfer abroad. Irrespective of who leaves, the biggest worry for Ariël Jacobs is a distinct lack of creativity in midfield. Guillaume Gillet is a good worker, as is Cheikhou Kouyaté but their most high-profile new signing Ronald Vargas (from Club Brugge) will miss the first few weeks of the campaign. Though relegated back to the reserves after a fine pre-season, Dennis Praet could potentially find himself being called upon at some point to shoulder a portion of the creative burden.
While it may be small consolation to the significant fanbase who want to see beautiful football allied to trophies, Herman van Holsbeeck looks to have made an array of good acquisitions at the back. The versatile Denis Odoi arrives from Sint-Truiden to fill the right-back slot, Behrang Safari at left-back is about as good a player as they could have hoped to have bought in his position and free-transfer Samuel has made a positive impression so far. The ex-Werder Bremen man is a footballing centre-half, who compliments the likes of Juhász and Ondrej Mazuch. Should Juhász depart, it may actually help solve the left-back conundrum as captain Olivier Deschacht could move inside.
Prediction: Anderlecht may lack the X-factor for the time being and the bar has been set perhaps impossibly high by van Holsbeeck. It’s tough to see them win the league, cup and stay in Europe until the spring. However, one must be wary of writing off a club who more often than not are there or thereabouts. 2nd.
Last season Blauw-Zwart were in disarray having made an atrocious start to the term. General manager Luc Devroe eventually got the chop and their fortunes picked up towards the end of the season before they secured a fourth-placed finish and European football. In a summer of unprecedented change at the Jan Breydelstadon, coach Adrie Koster is the great survivor. However, having been backed to the hilt in the transfer market at least, the pressure is on the affable Dutchman, who is popular with fans and players alike but arguably not a coach of the calibre of a Trond Sollied or a Frank Vercauteren.
So, what of this new team? At first glance, Club have bought well and avoided a scattergun approach. Niki Zimling is the most significant buy in terms of adding balance to the side in midfield. His calming presence and leadership will liberate Vadis Odjidja-Ofoe to play a greater role offensively. Ahead of them is the talented but hitherto flawed playmaker Victor Vazquez,of whom great things were once expected at Barcelona. He is still fondly thought of in Catalunya but acknowledges that this could be his last chance to cut it at the professional level. A tough task lies ahead for the 23-year-old to adapt to a very different environment in the north-west of Belgium.
In contrast, Israeli player of the year Lior Refaelov looks to have taken to Brugge without much difficulty and he looks to be an excellent player cutting in from the left-hand side. If he can channel his penchant for flicks and tricks to supply Bjorn Vleminckx upfront, Club will be a difficult attacking side to stop. In defence, Frederik Stenman and Tom Høgli are international-quality full-backs, while Iron-Mike Almebäck is an excellent partner for Ryan Donk. And behind them is the new young keeper to be thrilled about, Colin Coosemans who has stepped into the shoes of the disgraced Stijn Stijnen with aplomb. And familiar figures Carl Hoefkens and Nabil Dirar remain while young winger Thomas Meunier could make an impact from the bench.
Prediction: With a record number of season tickets sold, optimism is high in Brugge, perhaps too high. However, on the surface the scouting department has earned its money and there is good spirit within the dressing room. The whole “Personal Performance Centre” may have its sceptics such as Karel Geraerts and myself but the new broom may see the Club fans sprinkled with magic over the next few months. 1st.
Les Rouches now stand as the only major club in French-speaking Wallonia, which is an unfortunate by-product of the Pro League but a sign that football often reflects society. Standard have seen the D’Onofrio brothers depart, ending an interest in the club that spans more than a decade. Much maligned coach Dominique left and he was soon followed by vice-president and minority shareholder Luciano. In an incredible twist of events, Sint-Truiden chairman Roland Duchâtelet bought the club outright for around €40m and has renounced his functions at his former club.
The new coach is José Riga and as with his predecessor, his appointment was not met with unanimous delight from some of the most fervent fans in the country. After good spells with Mons and Visé, the mild-mannered but intelligent coach deserves the step-up to one of Belgium’s top three. He openly acknowledges the magnitude of the task in hand as he prepares for what new sporting director Jean-François De Sart wisely called “a season of transition”. Axel Witsel has left a gaping hole in the midfield, made still wider by the impending exit of captain Steven Defour, most likely to Portugal. Eliaquim Mangala’s future is also uncertain but he looks to have snubbed a move to Valencia. Mehdi Carcela, whose life was in danger following a nasty accident in last-season’s title decider against Genk, turned down a move to Spartak Moscow and is working his way back to full fitness.
And yet, despite cries of pessimism from the fans who do not entirely trust the nouveau regime, Standard retain an incredible ability to renew, like the Pakistani cricket team. There remains a considerable wealth of talent at Sclessin and while a repeat of last-year’s second-placed finish will be tough, one cannot definitively say it is beyond Riga’s men. If either Champions League hero Nacho Gonzalez or mercurial midfielder Franck Berrier can add creativiy to a solid midfield base, Standard will be tough to brush aside but both are notoriously injury-prone.
Prediction: Like Anderlecht, they lack a bit of imagination in the midfield but there are still a lot of things to like about this side, including two excellent full-backs, a top keeper in Sinan Bolat and combative midfielders in the shape of Pape Camara and newcomer Yoni Buyens. While Riga gets his feet under the table, there could be teething troubles but I feel they will peak in the play-offs. 3rd
De Buffalo’s are a club going places. Although they have never stepped onto the stop step of the podium, recent years have seen them emerge as a force to be reckoned with at the business end of the table. Like Bayer Leverkusen in Germany, they lack the killer instinct both in terms of a proflic goalgetter (as Ole Martin Arst was back in the day) and a winning mentality in the crunch matches. Trond Sollied, who replaces the ousted Franky Dury, is charged with ensuring the club make that elusive breakthrough. Sollied knows the club well, having already been coach twice, and is a proven winner in Belgium, having won two titles with Club Brugge.
Sollied has already made a good impression on the players, who prefer his modus operandi of focusing more on their own qualities, rather than those of the opposition, as Dury tended to do. He has his own unique style of football with the emphasis very much placed on attack, which suits the philosophy that has run through various Gent sides in recent times. Though they do lack a top class forward in the mould of a Vleminckx, the most critical problem is their defence, which is notoriously leaky. Stef Wils and Marko Suler look to be on the way out and the onus will be on the Burundian Valery Nahayo to be the enforcer at the back, which Sollied craves in his sides.
The squad has remained relatively unscathed from last year and it should be remembered that Gent were not too far off the pace in the regular season, admittedly once the points had been halved under the play-off system. However, should last-season’s leading scorer Elimane Coulibaly depart (10 goals), his contribution will need to be replaced with the likes of Yahya Soumahoro, Shlomi Arbeitman and Ilombe Mboyo. Midfield is a strength and Bernd Thijs offers leadership, presence and a handy quotient of goals from the middle of the park, while the youngster Hannes van der Bruggen has made keen observers sit up and take notice this summer. Star man Yassine El Ghanassy could be on the way to Udinese and his sale would be a blow should Gent be unable to reinvest the transfer funds wisely.
Prediction: Sollied is a huge factor in my view as the coach with the best pedigree among the leading contenders. He is battling against histor, which is not easily overturned. The squad still requires tinkering and the pre-season defeat to Lommel sparked some fears but El Ghanassy’s potential departure should be offset by a group full of attacking potential. 4th
With the almost never-ending transfer saga around young goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois having reached a messy conclusion, the champions can now focus on their twin goals of defending their title and reaching the money-spinning Champions League group stages. Frank Vercauteren’s men have so far added no new names although they have taken several players on trial and are close to signing Argentine centre-back Abel Masuero, who will replace Eric Matoukou. Chris Mavinga’s move to Rennes (via parent club Liverpool) means that a much-changed back five will start the season.
However, this need not lead to widespread pessimism in Limburg. Genk have an able replacement for Courtois in Köteles Lászlo, who has done little wrong of late while Nadson has struck up a good understanding with Torben Joneleit in defence. The small size of Genk’s squad means that they are a tight-knit group, who know each other inside out. Tözsér Daniel is a fine ball-player in open play and a real threat from set-pieces, who is complimented by captain David Hubert in midfield. Last season’s top-scorer Jelle Vossen remains and he should be a good bet for 15 goals again this term, while Marvin Ogunjimi often pops up when it matters and title-winning hero Kennedy is a hard-working alternative. And not to forget Elyaniv Barda, who should not have been left on the bench against Partizan in the Champions League.
Genk have succeeded in preserving as many players as was realistically possible due to a self-imposed transfer embargo, which began on 15 July and ends on 27 August. Should they fail to make the Champions League, those last few days of the window could be chaotic indeed with Kevin De Bruyne and Anele prime candidates for the exit door. New signings to boost the depth of the squad are a must if Genk are not to feel the effects of a long-season, in which they will be competing on two fronts.
Prediction: Repeating last year’s heroics will prove nigh-on impossible but they are a well-drilled outfit, who work hard, press the ball and are not afraid to give it a go. And I do not foresee a collapse under Vercauteren, who it must be remembered took this side from the depth of the lower half of the table. However, the small squad may take its toll, particularly if they are depleted come the end of August. 5th
Part two of my preview will be up shortly, looking at the rest of the teams and this weekend’s fixtures.