Anderlecht were punished for failing to take advantage of a weak Milan side leaving only the Europa League to play for.
In the build-up to this match, which at least on my part was so eagerly anticipated that it felt like an eternity since the victory over Zenit, what struck the most fear into my mind was not the name “Milan” nor the array of European Cups they have won in their illustrious history. It was not even the thought in the back of my mind that they couldn’t play as poorly as they had in the first game in Italy. Instead, it was the possible regrets Anderlecht may come to have for not making the most of having had the upper hand.
Even when a game pits together two sides with a considerable disparity of resources and quality between them, the so-called lesser light enjoys periods where they are in the game and capable of posing a threat. When John van den Brom’s men arrived in the north of Italy to open their first group stage campaign in some years, they encountered a Rossoneri side who were in no way to be feared. Lucas Biglia had their best chance of the night but squandered it and though the point was heralded at the time, there was the nagging feeling that Milan, at that point in a deeper malaise than now, were there for the taking.
Against Zenit In Russia, Anderlecht produced a very creditable performance at a venue that has proven to be hostile over the years for opposing teams. They were to lose and much of the post-game attention would centre around Milan Jovanovic conceding the penalty that would separate the sides. And yet for all the plaudits that went Anderlecht’s way, once more they failed to make all the good work count – in fairness the inadequacies of Tom De Sutter at this level were highlighted as he failed to bully the opposing defence like Mbokani can.
Mbokani, mask and all, returned to action for the home game against Zenit. Again, we saw the calm control van den Brom has started to slowly implement in this team. On this occasion, the Congolese striker applied the vital finishing touch to score his maiden Champions League goal and hand Anderlecht their first Champions League win at home since beating Lyon in 2003. Suddenly, having put everything together, there began to emerge a degree of hope and optimism that the last sixteen could be in sight. After all, they had a second consecutive home game, and that against a Milan side, whom they had already sparred with back in September.
After a brief flicker from Milan’s nimble attacking triumvirate, Anderlecht began to exert control over the game in the middle of the park through Biglia and Kljestan ; the former being the brains of the pairing, the latter not just being the brawn but crucially, the legs. His energy and stamina relieves the Argentine of that extra burden. However, the opening 45 minutes tonight symbolised Anderlecht’s entire campaign. They were the better side once they had found their feet but when the opening game, Jovanovic produced a limp effort, which was in sharp contrast to what was to follow.
At the break, I wrote that Anderlecht needed to build upon the positives of the first-half – in other words, to avoid the repetition of past errors. They also had to be on high alert and not be lulled into complacency brought about by their relative superiority (without ever being brilliant or particularly incisive it must be stressed). No sooner had I pressed return had Milan opened the scoring. Guillaume Gillet went walkabout and left Kouyaté isolated against Bojan and El Shaarawy. The Italian forward took the ball down superbly before side-footing the ball past a helpless Proto. One moment of slackness, one lapse in concentration, punished. Anderlecht can have no complaints – it should be at the top table of European football.
That they strove to fight their way back into the game, and the group, having then lost a second goal to a wonderful Mexès free-kick and Nuytinck to a debatable sending off, was most admirable. This team played with spirit but ultimately came up short but they need not be discouraged, downhearted nor ashamed. They have not disgraced themselves as some had feared. They have shown they can at least be competitive. It is Anderlecht’s first time back among the big boys and it is also John van den Brom’s first season and first time coaching in the Champions League. There are building blocks in place to suggest a brighter future than the barren years, which preceded the Dutchman’s appointment.
Of course, as is inevitable, some of the big guns will move on. Lucas Biglia has undoubtedly spent a larger portion of his career in Brussels than he would have expected and Mbokani will have no shortage of suitors in spite of question marks over his mental strength. If Kouyaté is to truly become a top-class stopper, he will realise that mistakes made as a centre-back are more likely to be punished than those made fifteen yards further forward in midfield. It’s a great shame that we never got to see Matias Suarez strut his stuff though Massimo Bruno has grown in stature with the big-match experience, which will stand him in good stead for the years to come.
And if tonight passed Dennis Praet by (I felt he was too advanced and needed to be deeper to have a better view of the play in front of him), it will serve as an invaluable lesson to the youngster, to whom no blame should be attached. All things being equal, Praet will be the barometer of Anderlecht’s European stature. As he learns to cope with the game at the highest level, hopefully so will the squad under their bright young coach. It’s very tempting to think what might have been but for the moment, it’s best perhaps to reflect on the strides that have been made and the bright future that hopefully awaits.