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.
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.
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.
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.
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.