The coming season could be one where young players get a chance to shine at Belgium’s top clubs. Experienced players have left Anderlecht and several members of the club’s academy are set to step into the first team squad. Club Brugge has also been busy at the youth level as well as signing youngsters as the club keeps an eye on the Financial Fair Play rules. Finally, Standard Liege and Racing Genk have already given their precocious teenagers playing time and hope that their academies bear even more fruit in the near future.Reigning champions Anderlecht has lost captain Lucas Biglia, to Lazio, and strikers Dieumerci Mbokani and Tom de Sutter to Dynamo Kiev and Club Brugge respectively. The club has also called time on veterans Milan Jovanovic and Marcin Wasilewski. With Cheikhou Kouyaté considering his future, Anderlecht has a few gaps to fill. 19 year-old Dennis Praet has been given the number 10 shirt and a lot of responsibility will be placed on his young shoulders. He’ll be under pressure as he has been compared to Paul Van Himst and he’s now one of the club’s highest paid players; the demanding Anderlecht fans won’t give him much time. Another teenage midfielder, Federico Vico, has been signed from Spanish second division Cordoba. He’s been a regular for Spain’s U19 and U20 sides and could turn out to be Praet’s main challenger in the creative department. Anderlecht has also signed Serb international midfielder Luka Milivojevic (22) as Biglia’s replacement. Finally, defender Leander Dedoncker (18) and midfield all-rounder Youri Tielemans (16) look set to feature this season. The future looks bright as Anderlecht go for a third successive title.
Last season Club Brugge finished third and will want to do better in the coming campaign. The management want to build a Blauw & Zwart side that will get back to the club’s core values of hard work and never-say-die-ism. To ensure that these attitudes prevail, the club has signed veteran Timmy Simons from Nuremburg. From 2000 to 2005, Simons made around 170 appearances for Club Brugge and was Player of the Year in 2002. The returning Simons will be a much-needed leader on the pitch. As for youth, Maxime Lestienne was called up to the Belgian national team last season. He’s 21 but his development was slowed due to his first club, Mouscron, declaring bankruptcy. As well as being a creative talent, Lestienne also scores regularly. With an eye to the future, Club Brugge signed Australian keeper Matt Ryan (21), Greek midfielder Spyridon Fourlanos (19) and Portuguese defender Elton Monteiro (19); the last-named arriving from Arsenal. Eidur Gudjohnsen will be hoping to make an impact while Vadis Odjidja may struggle to play in the big games as Simons and Jonathan Blondel – who was at Spurs over 10 years ago – look like being first choices. One for the future is Romelu Lukaku’s cousin Boli Bolingoli-Mbombo (18) who is just breaking into the first team squad.Racing Genk has extended Dutch coach Mario Been’s contract to 2016 and will be in Europe after winning the Belgian Cup. Captain Jelle Vossen is still at the Cristal Arena and he leads a useful- looking squad. Genk has a couple of 19 year-olds who could break through: Dutch defender Sandy Walsh and winger Jordy Croux. The top talent, however, is thought to be Siebe Schrijvers, 17; a prolific scorer in the junior teams. He’s been a regular for the Belgium U17 team and is one of the few highly-rated players in that squad who has not yet been lured to a Premier League side. Genk have a settled side and will be looking to win another trophy.
As usual, Standard Liege is in a state of flux. Once the club had qualified for Europe in May, President Roland Duchâtelet sacked popular coach Mircea Rednic. That was the final straw for many fans and a series of demonstrations, including stadium break-ins during meetings with sponsors, led to Duchâtelet saying enough was enough and that he was going to sell the club. Since then he has signed Belgian international Igor De Camargo on a substantial salary and given improved contracts to several key players who had threatened to leave: 19 year-old strikers Michy Batshuayi and Imoh Ezekiel, and French midfielder William Vainqueur. This has led several pundits to argue that Duchâtelet is bluffing and intends to stay on at the helm. However, it’s hard to say what will happen at Sclessin from one week to the next. On the youth front, Dino Arslanagic (20) could be the eventual replacement for Vincent Kompany in the Belgian national team. It was therefore disappointing when Standard signed veteran centre back Tel Ben Haim –presumably a favourite of new coach, Israeli Guy Luzon.
The other member of the ‘big five’ – Gent – will play in a brand new stadium this season. The club is ambitious and that will give the team a big lift. It’s difficult to see Gent achieving the aim of qualifying for Europe. Club captain Ilombe ‘Pelé’ Mboyo is likely to leave – but it’s taking time – and the club has already signed Dane Nicklas Pedersen from KV Mechelen as a replacement. Gent also has a member of the Belgium U17 side in Jinty Caenepeel (17). The explosive winger is on a semi-professional contract and recently the club said it had turned down two offers for Caenepeel from Juventus. Another player who could be in for a good season is Yassine El Ghanassy – he’s always had talent but recent setbacks in England might just have made him realize that success does not come easy.Kortrijk, Lokeren, Mons, KV Mechelen and Leuven will be hoping to make it into the ‘top six’ playoffs. Lokeren will have 20 year-old South African Ayanda Patosi returning after serious injury and he could be something special: strong, creative and with an eye for goal. Leuven has signed Belgian international striker Marvin Ogunjimi and will hope coach Ronny Van Geneugdenhe can resurrect a career that’s going nowhere. This season could also be the one that sees Thomas Azevedo make his name at Leuven; Anderlecht has first option on the 21 year-old winger.
Last season, Zulte Waregem finished as runners-up to Anderlecht and at one stage, it appeared the club’s ranks could be decimated by the start of the new campaign. Jonathan Delaplace had joined Lille, d Franck Berrier was talking about heading for pastures new and last year’s breakthrough talent Junior Malanda (18) unilaterally broke his contract to try and force a move to the Premier League. Then the club had some good news, announcing that Thorgan Hazard (20) was returning on loan from Chelsea. Coach Francky Dury worked wonders last year but he could find it difficult to repeat that performance. Cercle Brugge, Charleroi, Lierse and Waasland-Beveren will be hoping for mid-table comfort at best. Remarkably, Beveren have signed 16 players with 15 leaving. At Lierse, the well-travelled Tomasz Radzinski is the new Sporting Director while Charleroi has the highly-rated Felice Mazzu in charge. Cercle Brugge were looking good at the end of last season under Lorenzo Staelens but it won’t be easy this campaign. That leaves the one promoted club, Oostende. The newcomers are short of money and experience and will start favourites to return from whence they came.
With Anderlecht losing senior players and being reluctant to spend big money, it could be a close title race. Anderlecht have very promising youngsters but it might be asking too much to get them to withstand the pressure that is always there at the club. The main challengers to the Brussels club are likely to be Club Brugge and Genk. Also, with Belgian football being in the spotlight ahead of the World Cup, there will be chances for some forgotten men (De Sutter, Vanden Borre, Blondel …) and talented young players (Praet, Bruno, Thorgan Hazard, Lestienne …) to make their name and perhaps get on the plane to Rio.
As for the title race, this is Belgium. The championship started in July so there will be four more weeks of the transfer window. The second window in January could shake things up and then there will be the vagaries of the playoffs; anything could and probably will happen.