Olympiacos u21 – Anderlecht u21
After the surprise and disappointment of last night’s home defeat to Zulte Waregem, attention at Anderlecht turns to their under-21 team, who meet Olympiacos in the last 16 of the NextGen Series. Paarswit defeated Tottenham in their final group stage game to qualify from a group also containing Barcelona and Wolfsburg.
Finishing second behind Barcelona, who topped Group 1, René Peeters’ side managed to avoid defeat in both encounters with the Catalans including an impressive 1-1 draw away.
More recently, Anderlecht u21 have been taking part in the prestigious Viareggio Cup, a well-known youth tournament in Italy. Despite only one foreign team having won in 33 years, les Mauves et Blancs emerged victorious after a memorable campaign culminating in a 3-0 defeat of AC Milan in the final.
Initially drawn in a group with a Serie D representative side, Reggina and Norte America, Anderlecht got off to the perfect start with a 1-0 win over Serie D thanks to a penalty from skipper Michaël Heylen. They then bounced back from a 1-0 defeat to Norte America to beat Reggina in the third game 2-0 with goals from Jordan Lukaku and Frank Acheampong to seal a place in the last sixteen.
Penalty shoot-outs were needed to get past first Lazio and then Torino, who boasted Dolly Menga (on loan from Lierse) and Nathan Kabasele (on loan from Anderlecht) before Siena were overcome in the semis to set up a final against Milan. It took until the second half for the deadlock to be broken but Acheampong’s header set Anderlecht on their way. The forward, who was known in Thailand as “the Ghanaian Messi” went on to double his tally before Nabil Jaadi put the icing on the cake in injury time.
A number of the team have attracted praise and attention. Davy Roef, who was a star in both penalty shoot-out wins and who also made some crucial saves in the final, was voted the best goalkeeper of the tournament. Jordan Lukaku, a strong left-back / left winger who loves to attack, won praise from Milan vice-president Adriano Galliani, as did the long-legged midfielder Mohammed Daf. All three were picked out by Italian sports paper Gazzetta Dello Sport in addition to forward Acheampong.
John van den Brom congratulated the side on their exploits and admitted he was not surprised at hearing that Acheampong was fantastic in the final. With Anderlecht set to lose Cheikhou Kouyaté in the summer and the squad being short at centreback at any rate, it is surely only a matter of time before Heylen makes his first tentative steps with the first-team squad.
Daf and Acheampong may join him and though while the ascent of fellow u21 players Dennis Praet and Massimo Bruno has been welcomed, recent weeks have helped to rein in expectations.
It is worth remembering that youth sides rarely produce a glut of players who make it at the top level, especially given the standards demanded at Anderlecht. The 2007 vintage, which reached the Viareggio semis, contained Vadis Odjidja, now at Club Brugge via HSV and Roland Lamah, who has just picked up the Capital One Cup with Swansea. However, the majority are now plying their trade in the lower divisions.
Also worth noting is that Anderlecht recently completed a major upgrade of their facilities at Neerpede, which the transfer of its most famous recent graduate Romelu Lukaku has helped to pay for and the academy was ranked the best in Belgium among top flight teams ahead of Standard, Club Brugge and Genk.
Whether they will have enough in the tank tonight to get past Olympiacos remains to be seen. The Greeks emerged from a group containing Arsenal, Athletic Club and Marseille. Whoever wins will play Aston Villa, who defeated Ajax at De Toekomst, in the quarters. The game kicks off at 1800 CET.