Jan 25

Standard’s Ultras step over the football line

Banner displayed by Standard's Ultras before today's game with Anderlecht.

Banner displayed by Standard’s Ultras before today’s game with Anderlecht.

The ‘football match’ between Standard Liege and Anderlecht today encapsulated every aspect of the modern game. On Wednesday I wrote about the good side of football with Standard Chairman Roland Duchâtelet releasing his international centre back Laurent Ciman who wished to move to Montreal with his wife and family to get treatment for their autistic daughter.

Ciman was in the Standard side today and scored on his farewell appearance. Also saying goodbye was Standard’s Paul-José Mpoku. He’s joining Qatari outfit Al Arabi and the move is an example of the role that money plays in the game as Qatar embodies what’s wrong with football: a country with no history of the game has bought the World Cup purely for political reasons.

That leaves the ugly side and boy was today ugly. Before the game, the infamous Standard Ultras displayed a banner that depicted a character from the film ‘Friday the 13th’ holding the decapitated head of Steven Defour. He was a true legend for Standard a few years ago. Defour captained the side to their first title for 25 years, moved to Porto and after a tough time, returned to play for Standard’s main rivals Anderlecht.

Before the game, I had written that Defour – returning to Sclessin for the first time in an Anderlecht shirt – would not be too worried by abuse. I had not counted on the banner stating ‘RED or DEAD’. After looked relatively unaffected in the first half, Defour had a rush of blood to the head and belted the ball into the crowd to earn a second booking.

Forgetting about the rights and wrongs of the sending off, this led to Anderlecht fans ripping out seats and tossing them onto the pitch. Somehow the game stumbled onto the finish with just 10 minutes of extra time.

I was tweeting throughout the match and was surprised by the number of people – a minority – who were defending the banner in the name of free speech. I am as much in favour that freedom as the next man or woman but there has to be a limit, there has to be a line over which you can’t cross.

Displaying the decapitation of a living person cannot be acceptable. If that’s Ok, then what is wrong – would a scene showing Defour’s family members being raped be fine too?

You could even argue that game should have been stopped as the banner was unfurled before the kick-off but then the ‘there would be a riot’ argument would come into play.

Sadly the reactions of Standard Liege and of the Belgian FA have been muted. The Communications Officer of Standard Liege said they had requested a control of the banners that would be on display a few days before the game as it was a high risk match. The Ultras simply showed then a different banner – clever!

The Belgian FA spokesperson said it was not acceptable to display a banner like that but there was nothing in the rules to stop it. They would be looking into the situation. That’s OK then.

In my piece on Wednesday, I said that football was no longer the ‘beautiful game’ for a number of reasons. Today increased my distaste. Imagine taking children to a match and having to explain that type of banner. A ‘beautiful game’ indeed.

Jan 25

Standard fans prepare to welcome back Steven Defour

Steven Defour - back at Sclessin today (copyright John Chapman).

Steven Defour – back at Sclessin today (copyright John Chapman).

Anderlecht visit Sclessin today and it’s likely to be a bit feisty. All the pre-match headlines have focused on two players: Alexander Scholz and Steven Defour. Scholz recently moved to Standard Liege from Lokeren. That didn’t please Anderlecht chairman Roger Vanden Stock who had been extremely confident that the Danish centre back would be signing for his club.

It appears there was a personal intervention from the ubiquitous Roland Duchâtelet who offered Scholz a higher salary and the deed was done. Belgium’s Golden Boot winner Dennis Praet accused Scholz of being scared of the competition at Anderlecht while Vanden Stock said he didn’t want that type of person at his club.

As for Defour, this will be his first appearance in an Anderlecht shirt at Sclessin since he joined the club from Porto in the summer. Standard’s fans are said to be waiting to give Defour a warm welcome and there are likely to be several banners proclaiming the return of ‘Judas’. Defour was a true Standard Liege legend and I remember his immense joy when Standard went to Anderlecht and defeated them with a so-called ‘B team’ back in 2011.

But Defour is a professional footballer and he chose to play for Anderlecht, on the advice of another Standard legend – Luciano D’Onofrio – as it would be good for his slightly fading career. Defour is a fighter and he’s still ambitious. He’s unlikely to stick around at Anderlecht for too long and he will thrive on the hostile atmosphere today.

Key players missing

Anderlecht have looked good in Europe, less so in the league.

Anderlecht have looked good in Europe, less so in the league.

In truth, today’s game will be short of big personalities. Anderlecht will be without several plyers due to suspension, injury and international selection while Standard are but a shadow of their former selves.

For the home side, Igor De Camargo has found some form and will lead the line. Jelle Van Damme will face his former club and it’s just possible that Scholz will start the game. Both Paul-José Mpoku and Laurent Ciman are due to leave Standard in January but are in the squad. They are likely to feature at some stage so they can say their goodbyes.

Laurent Ciman (being hugged by Dries Mertens) will say his goodbyes today  (copyright John Chapman)

Laurent Ciman (being hugged by Dries Mertens) will say his goodbyes today (copyright John Chapman)

As for Anderlecht, Alexsandar Mitrovic is suspended and will be replaced by ex-Standard man Gohi Bi Cyriac. Praet is injured while Chancel Mbemba and Frank Acheampong are away at AFCON. That will leave Anderlecht with a youthful line-up with half of the side aged 21 or younger.
These games used to be the highlight of the Belgian season but with the JPL’s playoff format, that diminishes the value of the regular games, and the mass exodus of talent in the past few years, things ain’t what they used to be.

It’s to be hoped that the young players on view do themselves justice but I’m not expecting a spectacular game and it could end with honours even. Don’t rule out the odd red card though.

Possible line-ups

Standard: Thuram; Milec, Arslanagic, Ciman, Van Damme; Faty, de Sart, Trebel, Carcela, Ono: De Camargo

Anderlecht: Proto, Colin, Heylen, Deschacht, N’Sakala: Dendoncker, Tielemans, Defour: Kabasele, Najar, Cyriac

Jan 23

From the archives : Chadwick getting the best of both worlds

Luke Chadwick on the night that Antwerp won the second division title.

Luke Chadwick on the night that Antwerp won the second division title.

Woody Allen once famously said that the good thing about being bisexual was that it doubled your chances of a date on a Saturday night – and, in footballing terms, Manchester United’s Luke Chadwick agrees.

As the youngster is genuinely two-footed, he has doubled his chances of playing on United’s flanks. Watch out, Messrs Beckham and Giggs. On the eve of joining the England Under-21 party, Chadwick spoke to onefootball.com’s John Chapman.

Luke Chadwick is 19 and his CV to date includes Manchester United, Royal Antwerp and the England Under-21s. Currently on loan with the Belgian club, Chadwick is fast, two-footed and hungry for more first-team experience. Next season could be an exciting one for the flying winger, wherever he is playing.

Born in Cambridge, Chadwick had the choice of playing for Arsenal or Manchester United. He opted for the north as “the training was more enjoyable, the whole atmosphere friendlier.” After playing junior football, he signed professional forms in the 1998-99 season. It was, he now remembers, “one of the best moments of my life”.

So far he’s played just once for United’s first team, in the Worthington Cup match against Aston Villa. In a team sprinkled with young players, the 3-0 defeat still rankles: “We should have done better than that,” he admits.

Just after Christmas 1999, Chadwick was given the chance of playing at Antwerp, joining team-mates Kirk Hilton and George Clegg across the channel.

“I thought it would be a great experience,” he says and, looking back, he feels that it’s toughened him both mentally and physically. “First-team football is different. You can’t afford to make mistakes.” Chadwick has appeared 14 times for Antwerp, scoring five goals including a hat-trick against Kortrijk in March. Goals, however, are not what makes Chadwick tick. He loves to take on defenders and this has made him a big favourite. Arriving at Old Trafford as a right-footed striker, he’s now equally at home on the left wing where he’s started most of his games for Antwerp.

His best night was when Ingelmunster were beaten to give Royal Antwerp the championship, and promotion, by a record-breaking 19 points. Chadwick was carried shoulder-high from the pitch by enthusiastic fans – something he’ll never forget. “The whole night was brilliant,” he reflects. “A magic moment.”

His next objective is this summer’s Under-21 tournament in Slovakia. Chadwick takes up the story: “I’d already played for the England Under-18s and Howard Wilkinson picked me against Luxembourg for the Under-21s. Everyone else was a Premiership player so I was very surprised. I’ve learnt a lot just being on the pitch with those guys.”

Chadwick played right wing-back against Luxembourg and stayed there against Argentina and Denmark. “It’s a very difficult position,” he concludes. “Hard work.”

Of his young international colleagues he’s been most impressed by Liverpool midfielder Steve Gerard, whom he rates as “a terrific player.” But Argentina’s midfielder Dalassendro really impressed him when the two sides met in the spring. Apparently, he was so good against England that “no-one could tackle him all night”.

Last Friday Chadwick played for Antwerp against United Reserves and he was the most impressive Manchester player on the pitch, setting up the only goal of the game as Antwerp won 1-0. Asked if he might return to Antwerp next season, Chadwick remains non-committal. “It’s not my decision,” he says. “But if it would mean more first-team football (in the Belgian first division) then I wouldn’t be against it.”

As a potential understudy to both Ryan Giggs and David Beckham, Chadwick’s career is well on course. If next year he finds himself facing Anderlecht and Standard Liege, as well as continuing his run in the England set-up, there will doubtless be a few more entries on the Cambridge boy’s already impressive CV.

May 2000

Jan 21

Standard Liège release Laurent Ciman for personal reasons

Laurent Ciman enjoys a training session before the World Cup (copyright John Chapman)

Laurent Ciman enjoys a training session before the World Cup (copyright John Chapman)

Football is no longer, in Pelé’s words, the “beautiful game”. Today, the leading players can be counted among the world’s ‘super-rich’. Encouraged by their agents, many players seek transfers on a regular basis. Some change clubs to enhance their career, others to improve their own financial situation and those of their ‘people’.
January is one of the periods when transfers are allowed. Rumours of moves abound and some even come to fruition. Occasionally a story stands out from the pack and such a one is that of Standard Liège’s Laurent Ciman.
Ciman is a regular member of Belgium’s international squad and is under contract to Standard until 2017. Despite this, Ciman is on the verge of moving to North American club, Montreal Impact (Impact de Montréal). His desire to move to the MLS (Major League Soccer) is not driven by money but for family reasons.
Ciman’s young daughter Nina is on the autism spectrum and her parents wish to live in Quebec, a province with an international reputation in the treatment of this condition. Standard Liège chairman Roland Duchâtelet, often criticised by the fans of the clubs he owns, is releasing Ciman from his contract. This will allow the move to go through without a hitch.
The management of Standard Liège deserve respect for allowing the player to leave the club on a free transfer and it is to be hoped that the Ciman family receive the support they need in their new home.

Jan 10

If it’s January, it’s time for the Golden Boot!

Next Wednesday journalists, coaches and past winners will decide who will be Belgium’s ‘Golden Boot’ for 2014. As usual, the award will be based on performances over the calendar year rather than a complete football season. It’s crazy but it’s true.

Dennis Praet (front left) and Silvio Proto line up before facing Arsenal. (copyright John Chapman)

Dennis Praet (front left) and Silvio Proto line up before facing Arsenal. (copyright John Chapman)

Last year, the three favourites – Thorgan Hazard, Michy Batshuayi and Maxime Lestienne – had several things in common, all being talented, young and uncapped by Belgium. Now they have something else in common as all three left the Jupiler Pro League in last summer’s transfer window: to Borussia Mönchengladbach, Olympique de Marseille and Genoa, respectively.

The younger Hazard will have picked up some points for the first six months of 2014 but it won’t be enough to give him a second Soulier d’Or / Gouden Schoen. The award this time around will go to one of five players – two from Anderlecht, two from Club Brugge and one from Lokeren.

The clear favourite is Anderlecht’s Dennis Praet. Praet has long been the ‘next big thing’ but it’s only in the past eight or nine months that he’s been consistently showing the form of which he’s capable. Praet spent seven years in the Racing Genk junior teams before being snapped up by Anderlecht at the age of 16. He was on a salary of 800,000 euros before he’d played for the first team and this seemed to weigh heavily on his young shoulders. With John Van den Brom as coach, Praet often looked lost out on the wing and frequently on the bench, overshadowed first by Massimo Bruno (now at RB Salzburg) and latterly by the 16 year-old prodigy Youri Tielemans – himself now suffering from second season syndrome.

Everything changed for Praet when Van den Brom was sacked and his assistant Besnik Hasi was promoted just before the 2013-14 playoffs. Hasi put his faith in youth and placed Praet in his preferred position at no. 10. As other title contenders faltered, Anderlecht took the championship yet again and went on to perform creditably in the Champions League. Praet was instrumental in those games and finished the year in fine style with goals and assists.

One of his main challengers will be Club Brugge’s Victor Vazquez, a player with an interesting back-story. Playing in the Barcelona youth sides along with Cesc Fabregas, Gerard Pique and Lionel Messi, Vazquez was thought by some to be the most talented of his generation. For whatever reason, and he did have a serious injury, his talent never blossomed in Spain. In 2011, aged 24, he joined Club Brugge. An obviously talented midfield general, Vazquez took time to adapt to Belgium, struggling with injuries and from competition with Vadis Odjidja. This season, under Michel Preud’homme’s stewardship, Vazquez has finally begun to look the part and he’s the acknowledged playmaker of a team sitting at the top of the JPL table.

Axel Witsel - a winner back in 2008 (copyright John Chapman)

Axel Witsel – a winner back in 2006 (copyright John Chapman)

Other players in the running include another talented midfield player, Lokeren’s Hans Vanaken, and a couple of keepers: Anderlecht’s Silvio Proto and Club Brugge’s Australian shot-stopper Mat Ryan, arguably the best in Belgium. If Club Brugge win the title, and, with Preud’homme at the helm, it’s highly likely, then Vazquez and Ryan could be in the frame for the 2015 Golden Boot, assuming they stick around. I don’t think that Vanaken – once linked with Club Brugge when Vazquez was not performing – will pick up enough votes, given that he plays for Lokeren. That leaves Praet and Proto.

My gut feeling is that Anderlecht’s title and performances in the Champions League will give their players an advantage. Proto has been Anderlecht’s most consistent player in the past 12 months but as goalkeepers rarely win the Gouden Schoen – the last one was none other than KV Mechelen’s Preud’homme back in 1989 – I’m going for Praet. The midfielder is looking more like a man than a boy these days and he would be a worthy successor to Thorgan Hazard. Like Hazard before him, though, he may not be around after the current season ends.

Finally, here is some food for thought. Looking at the past 10 winners of the Golden Boot, only one – Vincent Kompany – has left Belgium and made a name for himself in one of Europe’s ‘big’ leagues. What can we learn from that? Answers on a postcard please or via twitter – @belgofoot.

Last 10 “Gouden Schoen”/ “Soulier D’Or” winners

2004 Vincent Kompany – Anderlecht
2005 Sergio Conceiçao – Standard Liege
2006 Mbark Boussoufa – Gent/Anderlecht
2007 Steven Defour – Standard Liege
2008 Axel Witsel – Standard Liege
2009 Milan Jovanovic – Standard Liege
2010 Mbark Boussoufa – Anderlecht
2011 Matias Suarez – Anderlecht
2012 Dieumerci Mbokani – Anderlecht
2013 Thorgan Hazard – Zulte Waregem

A few facts about the award

• Most points gained by winner of the ‘Golden Boot’: 509, Michel Preud’homme (KV Mechelen, 1987)
• Youngest ever winner: Paul Van Himst (Anderlecht, 1960) aged 17 years & 3 months.
• Club with the most winners of the award: Anderlecht (16 players – 22 awards), followed by Club Brugge (8, 10) and Standard Liege (8, 9).
• Oldest player to win: Lorenzo Staelens (Anderlecht, 1999) – aged 35 & 8 months.
• Most wins: Paul Van Himst (4), followed by Jan Ceulemans and Wilfried Van Moer (3 each).
• Largest winning margin: Vincent Kompany (by 403 points ahead of Luigi Pieroni in 2004).
• Foreign players to have won twice: Par Zetterberg (1993 and 1997), Mbark Boussoufa (2006 and 2010).
• Last time that a player from Club Brugge won – 2002, Timmy Simons.

Nov 17

10 random thoughts from watching Belgium play Wales

Eden Hazard - happy to be the main man. (copyright - John Chapman)

Eden Hazard – happy to be the main man. (copyright – John Chapman)

As an aside, the first thing we learned is that I should stop forecasting. OK, I said it would be a draw but I felt there would be goals. End result: nine shots on target – the total from both teams.

Apart from that, what struck me early on in the game was that Eden Hazard was really up for the game – much more than usual for Belgium – and that this was having the effect of diminishing Kevin De Bruyne’s role.

Here are the 10 things we learnt last night (or at least over a croissant and coffee this morning):

1. Both Hazard and De Bruyne want to be the main man (in attack). This is tricky as they have totally different styles and whoever is the (main) playmaker dictates the way the team plays.
2. In the game last night, Hazard was excellent but by moving into the centre – to take on his responsibilities, as he said – De Bruyne (who achieved little) was forced to plug gaps elsewhere.
3. If Hazard is to be given the number ‘10’ role, or if he takes it, then it would be best to choose two real wingers – from Dries Mertens, Adnan Januzaj, Kevin Mirallas when fit – and that would leave no place for De Bruyne.

Axel Witsel - Belgium's Mr. Consistency (copyright John Chapman)

Axel Witsel – Belgium’s Mr. Consistency (copyright John Chapman)


4. Neither De Bruyne nor Nacer Chadli look particularly happy on the wing – they need to be more involved; in the centre (if selected).
5. Belgium do not yet have an international-class centre forward: Christian Benteke is too static, Romulu Lukaku is limited technically and Divock Origi is a great prospect but raw.
6. Toby Alderweireld looks much happier as a centre back than at right back; unfortunately he will have to go back there when Vincent Kompany returns.
7. Axel Witsel is world-class playing in front of the defence – disciplined, reads the game well, hardly ever makes an error.
8. Marouane Fellaini is a ‘Plan B’ at best; Wilmots has other options for a box-to-box player in a 4-3-3 formation, they include Roma’s Radja Nainggolan.
9. Although Marc Wilmots said five points from nine was not a catastrophe, three of those were against Andorra.
10. Belgium have not improved (‘trained on’ in horseracing terms) since Brazil and Wilmots needs to shake things up. There are young players on the fringes who could come to the fore in the next couple of years, while several of the current squad are there based on reputation.

Nov 15

Brussels – setting for a game of Devils and Dragons

Kevin De Bruyne - seen as Belgium's main man (Copyright - John Chapman)

Kevin De Bruyne – seen as Belgium’s main man (Copyright – John Chapman)

Belgium face Wales on Sunday and you’d expect an air of confidence about a team placed fourth in the FIFA rankings facing one in 34th position. But it’s not quite like that. Although Marc Wilmots’ men defeated Iceland 3-1 on Wednesday, both the coach and the performance were heavily criticised.
Wilmots rested several players (most notably Kevin De Bruyne and Nacer Chadli) but the back four was the one that will face Wales and that’s the area that received most of the criticism. And it wasn’t just from the media, with Thibaut Courtois also weighing into his team-mates.

The Chelsea keeper wasn’t happy about certain players relaxing in the second half – even asking Wilmots to make some substitutions. Courtois also accused the full-backs (Anthony Vanden Borre and Jan Vertonghen) of neglecting their defensive duties. The Belgian media weren’t impressed either but it must be remembered that the Iceland game was a friendly and Wilmots was experimenting.

At one stage, Christian Benteke, Divock Origi and Romelu Lukaku were all on the pitch as team-mates – that’s probably never to be seen again. But if Wilmots hadn’t tried something, he would have been criticised for not using the opportunity to look at a few fringe players.

Options for the Belgium team

Jan Vertonghen - captain of Belgium tomorrow Copyright - John Chapman)

Jan Vertonghen – captain of Belgium tomorrow (Copyright – John Chapman)

Central defence used to be the area where Belgium had an embarrassment of riches, with seven seemingly first-class contenders in the squad. Things have changed since Brazil. Daniel Van Buyten, who had a great tournament, has retired, Thomas Vermaelen now spends most of his time in the Barcelona medical room and Vincent Kompany is ‘again’ out injured.

This means a new back four with Zenit’s Nic Lombaerts now in command of the defence. He’s a fine player who deserves a chance but he’s not a proven leader. Alongside him will be Southampton’s Toby Alderweireld; he’s surprised me by adapting so well to the Premier League, but he’s hardly a seasoned international centre back. As a by-product of Alderweireld’s switch, Vanden Borre is the first-choice right back, which could bring its own problems, given his wish to plough forward.

Due to the lack of defensive nous against Iceland, Wilmots has said he’ll move Lombaerts’ club colleague Axel Witsel back in front of the back four – a position in which he is world-class – and De Bruyne will come in as the main creative force. He’s on fire in the Bundesliga with nine assists so far.

For the box-to-box role (no. 8), it’s a toss-up between Marouane Fellaini and Roma’s Radja Nainggolan. The current has never really flowed between Wilmots and the Roma warrior and Fellaini could get the nod, with the latter’s height being seen as a big advantage.

Axel Witsel - will lead from the back against Wales (Copyright - John Chapman)

Axel Witsel – will lead from the back against Wales Copyright – John Chapman)

Chadli had been in excellent form for Spurs and is a firm Wilmots favourite – he’ll come in on the right with Eden Hazard on the left. Hazard has a poor record for Belgium and Wilmots presumably lives in hope that his next game will be the big one.

Up-front, Benteke had a reasonable return to the side on Wednesday and it’s between him and Liverpool’s on-loan to Lille Origi for the no. 9 spot. Again height could play a part and Benteke could stay in the team, even though the Lille man’s speed could be useful.

Wales – thoughts and selection options

For a view on the Welsh team, we caught up with Rich(ard) Evans (@welshric1980) who will be at the game tomorrow and supports both Wales and Spurs. As an aside, in today’s ‘La DH’, Chadli said he’s not Gareth Bale … he’s Nacer Chadli and he has different qualities.

Returning to Rich, although he thinks most Welsh fans would usually regard the team’s chances as ‘dim’, this time he feels things could be different as there’s now “a desire in the team to win every game.” Rich also thinks that the team and fans are behind Chris Coleman, even though his “tactics and style are at times still questionable”.

Another big positive for Rich is that the team has many players from the Premier League and Championship – plus one from La Liga – whereas in previous years, it was quite common for Leagues 1 & 2 (i.e. the third and fourth divisions in England) to be extensively represented. Rich adds that many of those players could be said to be in a “rich vein of form”.

Rich expects Coleman to go 4-5-1 (or some variant). He feels there won’t be much change at the back with Crystal Palace’s Wayne Hennessy in goal behind Reading’s Chris Gunter, Hull’s James Chester, Swansea’s Ashley Williams and club colleague Neil Taylor – rather than Ben Davies, who “hasn’t really done enough yet at Tottenham and is probably low on confidence.”

Obviously the big advantage for Wales is the pairing of Aaron Ramsey and Bale – two world-class players who have rarely played together for the national team. Rich sees Ramsey starting in the middle of the park with Palace’s Joe Ledley and Liverpool’s Joe Allen; Leicester City’s Andy King is out, suspended.

As for the forward line, Rich adds “without there being an obvious or prolific ‘centre forward’ type we may see the front/wide three, i.e. Bale, Reading’s Hal Robson Kanu and Birmingham’s David Cotterill, interchanging a bit.”

Game forecast

Gareth Bale in Real Madrid kit (Picture - Wikipedia)

Gareth Bale in Real Madrid kit (Picture – Wikipedia)

Rich argues that Belgium start favourites and should win even if they are not at their best. However he notes Wales’ “obvious sources of firepower” and thinks the visitors could “exploit some potential defensive weaknesses and indifferent form” and get something from the fixture.
I agree, as I think the newly-formed Belgian back four could struggle. After the World Cup, Wilmots said he would aim to play a more attacking game. He’s changed his mind now and hence Witsel is back patrolling the space (s) in front of the back four.

The form of Belgium’s strikers is also a concern, as is Hazard’s inability to play for Belgium. In the national team, much more of the play goes through De Bruyne, and Hazard sees much less of the ball than he does at Chelsea. Maybe that’s why De Bruyne is no longer at Stamford Bridge. (Ed: He’s joking.)

Given all that, I am going for a draw (2-2) with both Bale and Chadli getting on the score-sheet.

Likely teams:

Belgium

Courtois; Vanden Borre, Alderweireld, Lombaerts, Vertonghen; Witsel, Fellaini, De Bruyne: Chadli, Benteke, Eden Hazard.

Wales

Hennessy; Gunter, Chester, A. Williams, Taylor; Ramsey, Ledley, Allen: Bale, Robson Kanu, Cotterill

Nov 09

Big test for the Buffalos

Top cuisine

Anderlecht travel to Gent today and it’s a clash between the top two. These are heady days for the Buffalos, an ambitious club who play in a state-of-the-art stadium, the Ghelamco Arena, which also houses a Michelin Star restaurant.

Hein Vanhaezebrouck (picture - http://www.kaagent.be/)

Hein Vanhaezebrouck (picture – http://www.kaagent.be/)

Gent have never won the title, finishing as runners-up in 1954 and 2010. Things were looking good five seasons ago when Michel Preud’homme was at the helm. He said he wanted to make Gent a top team but only lasted a couple of seasons before heading off to FC Twente.

Since then, Gent have had seven coaches, including Francky Dury – now back at Zulte Waregem – and Bob Peeters, now at Charlton Athletic. No coach as had any success, for any number of reasons. Now, though, things are looking up. In the summer, Gent appointed Hein Vanhaezebrouck.

Coach with a big reputation

Vanhaezebrouck has had a big reputation in Belgium for a number of years, doing an excellent job at Kortrijk on limited resources. He had a blip in 2009 when he moved to Racing Genk and only lasted a few months following poor results. Returning to Kortrijk, Vanhaezebrouck did enough to be elected Coach of the Year in Belgium in 2012.

Vanhaezebrouck has a reputation for being meticulous in his planning and studies the opposition carefully. He probably tried to introduce too many of his ideas too soon at Genk and he’ll have learnt from the experience. He’s not afraid to change tactics during the game and has put together a squad that contains several players who he knew at Kortrijk.

Andrew Gibney, Editor of the French Football Weekly, met Vanhaezebrouck a few years ago and was struck by how approachable he was. Gibney says he was interested in what they were doing – a charity walk – and “gave them all the time in the world.”

The squad

Sacha Kljestan may play centre back for Anderlecht today (opyright - John Chapman)

Sacha Kljestan may play centre back for Anderlecht today (opyright – John Chapman)

Looking at the Gent squad, it has the appearance of being a team without stars. One player who does catch the eye is Benito Raman – 20 a few days ago. I included him in my young players to follow back in 2012 and he’s now showing what he is capable of. He spent his early days on the wing but he’s now assuming more responsibility just behind the striker. Raman has been named in the Belgium U21 squad whose priority is the 2017 European Championships.

Other than Raman, Gent has a top keeper in Matz Sels (22) and a useful playmaker in Swiss/Bosnian Danijel Miličević. Others, such as Sven Kums, were known to Vanhaezebrouck at Kortrijk.

The game

As for the game, if Gent win they will go top. Anderlecht have injury problems, especially in defence. Sacha Kljestan may have to play centre back and this makeshift back four may find it hard to cope with Raman. Anderlecht will also be meeting up with David Pollet, who had a very short and unsuccessful spell at the Constant Vanden Stock stadium.

Anderlecht have a young and talented squad but results have been poor recently. If they still have their minds on the Champions League ‘success’, Gent may be well organised enough to take the points. If that happens, expect Vanhaezebrouck to take a lot of the credit.

Nov 08

Anderlecht – Belgian giant and feeder club for Europe’s big leagues

As Lady Gaga once said, football is a funny old game. Going into their Champions League match with Arsenal on Tuesday night, Anderlecht were seen as lambs to the slaughter. They had won one of their last five league games and would be without Steven Defour and Matias Suarez through injury and Alexsander Mitrovic as he had lost form and gained weight.

Youri Tielemans warms up before the kick-off against Arsenal.

Youri Tielemans warms up before the kick-off against Arsenal.

Young players like Dennis Praet and Youri Tielemans have already got high-profiles but no one seriously thought that the Belgians would get any mind of result at the Emirates stadium.
In the event, things went as expected for an hour but then Anderlecht decided to turn up scoring three goals in 30 minutes. Being the Champions League, the come-back had the football world talking and they were talking about Anderlecht.

Anderlecht have won 33 titles since 1946, including the last three. The Brussels club has long had a reputation for youth development, although it has to be said that those youngsters are often picked up after starting their careers at other Belgian clubs, i.e. Praet from Genk.

Vincent Kompany and Romelu Lukaku are often cited as the success stories of Anderlecht’s youth policy but others didn’t stay at the club for too long. Adnan Januzaj and Charly Musonda Jr. were two of Anderlecht’s brightest stars but both left for Manchester United and Chelsea respectively before they had signed a professional contract.

Now Tielemans is hailed as the true successor to Kompany, seemingly being of a similar temperament and maturity at an early age.

Following the club’s exploits at the Emirates stadium, it’s of interest to note just how many players have been selected, this week, for the various Belgian international teams.

Vincent Komapny - stayed at Anderlecht for a few years (copyright - John Chapman)

Vincent Komapny – stayed at Anderlecht for a few years (copyright – John Chapman)

Praet and Anthony Vanden Borre, the prodigal son, have been selected in Marc Wilmots’ squad to face Wales. There are five players in the U21 squad, including Tielemans and Leander Dendoncker who both featured at the Emirates.

Four players feature in the U19 squad, one of which is Andy Kawaya who was an excellent substitute in London. Finally, there are three Anderlecht players in the Belgium U17 squad and seven called up for the U15 training camp; and Liam Bossin is in line to keep goal for the Ireland U19 team.

No surprise then that there will be many club scouts turning up at Gent’s Ghemalco Arena on Sunday, when the two top teams in the league meet. Anderlecht will again be suffering with injuries, Chancel Mbemba is now doubtful, but there will probably be at least 10 players aged 20 or under in the squad that travels to Gent on Sunday.

Charly Musonda Junior - one that got away (Copyright - John Chapman)

Charly Musonda Junior – one that got away (Copyright – John Chapman)

Anthony Vanden Borre - Anderlecht's prodigal son  (image: Wikipedia).

Anthony Vanden Borre – Anderlecht’s prodigal son (image: Wikipedia).

Talking to Sport/Foot magazine, Vanden Borre said that the youngsters of today tend to get in your face more than in his day. Knowing his reputation, that’s saying something. He added that as one of the older players, he sometimes has to take one or two aside if they get a bit out of control, and give then a slap or two (said with a big smile on his face).

Vanden Borre certainly overruled Tielemans in London when he insisted he would take the penalty even though the youngster had been designated to take spot-kicks by coach Besnik Hasi. He didn’t go as far as giving Tielemans a slap but he did make his point, adding later, “That was my penalty. No discussion. I wanted to score two goals in that stadium.”

Vanden Borre might be thinking now of a return to the Premier League, while Honduran Andy Najar and Congolese international Chancel Mbemba have also caught the eye this season.

But it’s players like Praet, Tielemans and Mitrovic – who put his name back on the map with his 90th minute equaliser – who will probably be at the top of visiting club’s shopping lists. Anderlecht will get possibly £30-£35 million for those three players alone and then the whole development process will start again.

Nov 03

Dennis and Youri head for the bright lights of London

Just under two weeks ago, with two minutes of official time remaining at the Constant Vanden Stock stadium remaining, Dennis Praet trotted off the pitch to a standing ovation from the Anderlecht fans.
He’d been the standout player in a sparkling display against Arsenal and he’d created Andy Najar’s goal that had given the Brussels side a precious lead.

A young Dennis Praet celebrates the title a couple of years ago.

A young Dennis Praet celebrates the title a couple of years ago.

Within minutes his world, and Anderlecht’s, had collapsed as first Kieran Gibbs and then Lukas Podolski gave Arsenal a win that they hardly deserved.

A close runner-up as Man of the Match had been Anderlecht’s 17 year-old Youri Tielemans. The youngster had been superb in a central midfield role alongside Steven Defour and one long cross-field pass from left to right had been almost worth the admission fee on its own.

Praet and Tielemans have taken different routes to the Anderlecht first team but they are now seen as the two of the team’s brightest talents. As could be expected, big clubs are buzzing around.
Praet is three years older than Tielemans and spent his formative years at Racing Genk. Moving to Anderlecht in 2010, he made his first team debut one year later.

The teams mingle just before the kick-off the last time around.

The teams mingle just before the kick-off the last time around.

He’s long been seen as the ‘next big thing’ in Belgium and Anderlecht put him on a salary pf 800,000 euros per annum a year before he’d established himself in the first team. This astronomical sum, for Belgium, led to Praet being envied at his secondary school by fellow pupils and teachers alike.

When Praet first broke into the first team with the accompanying hype, the rather scrawny Praet looked like a boy amongst men. The then coach John van den Brom tended to play Praet wide on the left and eventually left him out of the side.

When van den Brom was sacked, new coach Besnik Hasi put his faith in youth and placed Praet in his rightful place at number ‘10’. The midfielder has since put on much-needed muscle and gone from strength to strength.

Youri Tielemans warms up before the kick-off against Arsenal.

Youri Tielemans warms up before the kick-off against Arsenal.

Praet probably surprised Jack Wilshere by the way he tracked back and disposed him on at least two occasions. He’s a genuine playmaker and with his newly-found stamina, he could soon begin to live up to the hype.

Playing just behind Praet against Arsenal in a 4-3-3 formation were Defour and Tielemans. Tielemans burst on to the scene last season when he became the youngest Belgian ever to play in the Champions League, aged 16 years and four months.

A future leader, on the pitch and in the dressing room, Anderlecht’s Anthony Vanden Borre has said that Tielemans was better at 16 than Vincent Kompany was at that age. Perfectly bilingual in French and Dutch, like Kompany was at that age, Tielemans has had the good fortune – again like Kompany – to have parents who were prepared to put education before football.

Tielemans had the good fortune to have Cheikhou Kouyaté, now at West Ham United, alongside him when he first played in the first team and he has also benefited from the arrival of the experienced Defour this season.

Tielemans has the style, all-round game and personality to go far. Along with Praet, he will be knocking on the door of Belgium’s national team when the European Championships come around in 2016.

Anderlecht ready to go.

Anderlecht ready to go.

It’s unfortunate that Defour will be missing at the Emirates tonight through injury. It’s likely that Hasi will go 4-3-3 and opt for either US international Sacha Kljestan or 19year-old Leander Dendoncker to replace the ex-Standard Liege warrior.

Whatever the side that Anderlecht put out, Arsenal will start favourites. But if Anderlecht can play like they did for 88 minutes on the last time the teams met, it could just be the night when Dennis and Youri take one more step in their journey on to Europe’s bigger stages.

For the rest, Aleksandar Mitrović is still out of favour and Ivory Coast striker Gohi Bi Cyriac is likely to start on his own up front.

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