It’s the Belgian first division’s big fight; representing Belgium is Georges Leekens, now firmly of Club Brugge, and representing the Netherlands we have John van den Brom and Ron Jans of, respectively, Anderlecht and Standard Liege. The recent invasion by Dutch coaches in Belgian soccer means that five of the 16 first division clubs are spearheaded by a trainer from Belgium’s close neighbours … and rivals.
There are two clear favourites for the title: Anderlecht and Club Brugge. Anderlecht said they’d convinced their want-away stars – Matias Suarez and Lucas Biglia – to stay until Champions League qualification had been achieved; despite that, they decided that a bid of €16 million from CSKA for Suarez was an offer they could not refuse. If Biglia leaves as well and injury-prone Ronald Vargas does not come up to scratch, Les Mauves might struggle. Van den Brom likes to play attacking football – just one defensive midfielder – and he has the in-form Brazilian Kanu, the stand-out performer at the end of last season. However, a lot of responsibility could fall on 18 year-old Dennis Praet and forgotten man Fernando Canesin. If Dieumerci Mbokani also jumps ship, and he’s the type who might, then warning bells will be ringing. Although Anderlecht have a useful squad, concerns about the defence remain; Osama Hawsawi has not convinced anyone and Cheikou Kouyaté has gone to watch the Olympics from the Senegal bench. The worry is that Anderlecht don’t like spending; €52 million received in transfer fees in the last five years and just €21 million spent; the biggest outlay being €3.5 for Mbark Boussoufa from Gent. Anderlecht should have enough power left in the dressing room to challenge for the title again, but many questions remain.
Their main rivals will be last season’s ambitious runners-up, Club Brugge. Leekens has signed several new players, most notably Mémé Tchite from Standard Liege; Tchite thereby becoming the first player to feature for the ‘big three’: Club Brugge, Standard Liege and Anderlecht. Club Brugge have enough players – and sufficient quality – for two teams but it’s fair to say that only Serb keeper Bojan Jorgačević is sure of his place. In midfield, Vadis Odjidja must be hoping that he is given the responsibility that his talent deserves. In the pre-season, Club Brugge lost 5-1 to Getafe and there is much work to be done to find a settled combination. Leekens will be under pressure from the first day but is a supremely confident individual.
In regard to the other three of the ‘big five’ – Standard Liege, Racing Genk and Gent – none seem to be ready to push for the title. Standard Liege, with Jans settling in well, have been selling and buying (as usual) and it’s hard to say how they will perform. In defence, Jelle Van Damme is likely to start at centre back alongside Laurent Ciman. Marvin Ogunjimi has returned to Belgium on loan after failing in Mallorca. Ogunjimi is on a million euro salary and should consider himself a very lucky boy indeed. Standard have also picked up Eiji Kawashima from Lierse and made some other signings, mostly in the long term. The fans – some of the most vocal in Belgium – may have to endure another ‘season of transition’.
Gent have also lost a few players – including Yassine El Ghanassy to West Bromwich Albion – and two of their regular midfield: Jesper Jorgensen to Club Brugge and Tim Smolders to Cercle Brugge. Coach Trond Sollied should get the new boys organised and they have some talented youngsters on board. Two in particular are winger Benito Raman, 17, and Bosnian playmaker Armin Ćerimagić, 18, who flirted with Inter at the age of 12. The chairman is planning for a new stadium and will be aiming for the top three.
As for Racing Genk, with Dutchman Mario Been in charge, they’ll be trying to live without Kevin De Bruyne, now of Chelsea. Genk have signed a couple of French players to replace De Bruyne: Julien Gorius and Steeven Joseph-Monrose. The former was one of the league’s top performers last season and will orchestrate events. Monrose, a French U21 international, is fast and clever and it’s a surprise that he hasn’t returned to Ligue 1. Genk are ambitious and if they don’t have a good season, Been could be looking for a new post.
Of the rest, Lokeren, Kortrijk, Cercle Brugge and possibly KV Mechelen will be hoping to make it to the ‘top six’ playoffs. The remaining seven clubs will be hoping to avoid relegation. Looking at the newly-promoted Charleroi and Waasland-Beveren, the latter club, who rose from the ashes of Beveren – once the home of Yaya Touré – are trying to convince Thomas Radzinski to stay on. Charleroi, Wallonia’s third representative – after Standard and Mons – is reputedly up for sale and has a chairman – in Abbas Bayat – who has overseen 11 coaches in three seasons; one of them lasted just one game.
Returning to the Belgian-Dutch rivalry, of the five clubs with any hope of being champions, only Club Brugge has a Belgian in charge. The other four are headed by a Norwegian (Sollied) and three Dutch coaches (Van den Brom, Jans and Been). The Dutch have a reputation for attacking football and while this might work with young players brought up in the Eredivisie, the Belgian League is much grimmer; Adrie Koster’s spell at Club Brugge (he’s now at Beerschot) was typified by splendid attacking football mixed with poor defending.
The main contenders, Anderlecht and Club Brugge, both have squads that are far too big and they’ll be trying to get players off the wage bill before the end of August. As usual the problem is that the unwanted players have long-term contracts on high wages and loans are likely to be used again. If Anderlecht also lose more big names and refuse to spend, then they could be in trouble. At the moment I’m backing Anderlecht to take the title again – but like Lionel Bart’s Fagin – I’ll be reviewing the situation … on September 1st.