Although there have been changes in the structure of the professional game in Belgium, it looks like being the ‘same as usual’ next season with the ‘Big Five’ – Anderlecht, Club Brugge, Gent, Racing Genk and Standard Liège – challenging for honours.
Last season, Michel Preud’homme’s Club Brugge took the title as they were the only club to show any kind of consistency. So far they have only lost Thomas Meunier (to PSG) and have rejected big offers for Jose Izquierdo. They have a strong squad and if Preud’homme stays – despite talk of the Belgium job – they should have a good season. Playmaker Hans Vanaken will have a key role now that Victor Vasquez has left, while captain Timmy Simons will be 40 in December and might like the odd games’s rest.
The runners-up were Anderlecht. Failure meant that they now have a new coach – René Weiler, aged 42 – who moves from German second division club Nuremburg. Weiler could be the kind of man to shake up Anderlecht. Weiler made Steven Defour captain for the recent Champions League game in Russia and that looked a good decision. The Brussels club have made a few signings to add to Sofiane Hanni – last year’s Players’ Player of the Year – who joined from KV Mechelen. Weiler just needs to weld the individual units into a team.
Gent took third spot last time out and that was a disappointment. The Buffalos signed Mbark Boussoufa in the winter transfer window and that put a real spoke in the club’s wheels. Coach Hein Vanhaezebrouck never wanted the player and he’s now left the club. They’ve also lost keeper Matz Sels to Newcastle and captain Sven Kums could be on this way too. One player who could be important is midfielder Brecht Dejaeghere, who missed last year’s playoffs through injury. It’s vital that Vanhazebrouck keeps on the same wavelength as the Board, otherwise there will be trouble.
Racing Genk are a team to watch this season with the only problem being the number of Premier League clubs buzzing around the stadium. They have already lost Christian Kabasele to Watford and some of the younger talents could soon be following him out of the door. Top teenagers are Wilfried Ndidi and Leon Bailey; they will be joined by Leandro Trossard, coming back to the club after successful loan spells.
Standard Liege missed the playoffs last season as they lived through yet another transitional season. They should have some stability now as the squad has remained more or less the same with useful acquisitions in two ex-players, Jean-François Gillet and Ibrahima Cissé. This will be coach Yannick Ferrera’s first full season and he needs to have some measure of success to see the season out. Matthieu Dossevi looked good last season and other promising players are Edmilson Junior and Uganda teenage striker Farouk Miya.
These five clubs should make the playoffs and are likely to be joined by Oostende, who had an impressive season under owner Marc Coucke, the CEO of Omega Pharma and coach Yves Vanderhaeghe. Oostende have signed experienced keeper Silvio Proto from Anderlecht and young centre back Mathias Bossaerts from Manchester City, who was once the ‘next big thing’.
Zulte Waregem were in the playoffs last season but were simply outclassed. Coach Francky Dury does a tremendous job on limited resources and will doubtless do the same again this time out. Interesting signings are Obbi Oulare (a loan deal from Watford), Sander Coopman (on loan from Club Brugge) and Igor Vetokele (loan with purchase option from Charlton Athletic).
Charleroi are steadily improving but it’s slow slow progress. They just missed out on the playoffs in 2015-16 but Felice Mazzu is a coach with a bright future. Striker Mamadou Fall has returned from an extended loan spell at White Star and replaces Dieumerci Ndongala who has joined Gent.
Kortrijk owner Vincent Tan has not yet made a big impact and the club will presumably be looking for a mid-table finish. French striker Idriss Saadi has arrived on loan from Cardiff City and keeper Thomas Kaminski has come in from Anderlecht after finally realising he will never be their number one.
KV Mechelen have lost Cissé, Gillet and Hanni without bringing in any players of note – life could be difficult “Achter de Kazerne” (“Derrière les Casernes”)
Georges Leekens is still in charge at Lokeren and the club have recuperated Tom De Sutter from Bursapor to replace Udinese-bound Hamdi Harbaoui. Denis Odoi has also left Lokeren for a spell at Fulham.
The other five clubs will probably figure in the relegation battle, with four of them having budgets around the €10 million mark. Waasland-Beveren will have Sieve Schrijvers in their ranks – loan from Genk – and I’m hoping he will start to fulfill his early career promise.
Sint Truiden now have Roland Duchatelet back at the helm and the first casualty was coach Chris O’Loughlin, replaced by Croat Ivan Leko who knows the JPL well. Without signings they will struggle.
Mouscron-Peruwelz have ex-Anderlecht centre back Glen De Boeck at the helm. The standout signing is defender Stefan Simic from AC Milan (loan) although he has never played for the Italian sleeping giants. He was on loan to Varese in ‘Serie B’ before moving to Belgium.
If you are looking for Bob Peeters, he is in charge at Westerlo after keeping them in the JPL last time out. They will struggle again; Frederic Gounongbe has moved to Cardiff City and it’s hard to attract top talent to Westerlo. Anderlecht’s Herve Matthys is back agan on loan – the boy once featured for the first team in Brussels.
The fifth team is Eupen and they may have a slightly bigger budget then €10 million as they are owned by the Qatari-owned Aspire Academy. One interesting capture so far is Mamadou Sylla, on loan from Espanyol. Sylla scored a hat-trick against Bochum and could be one to watch. Eupen’s coach is Jordi Condom who was once in charge of one of the Barcelona youth teams.
As for the champions in 2016-17, Oostende don’t yet have the resources to challenge for the title, while Standard Liege and Anderlecht – remarkably – look set for seasons of transition. Of the other three, Gent could struggle to challenge for the title while it may be too soon for a rejuvenated Genk to take the top honours. That leaves champions Club Brugge to remain as favourites but if Preud’homme jumps ship, all bets are off.