The team of the week was undoubtedly Zulte Waregem, annual budget 8 million euros, but as usual most of the noise surrounded Anderlecht, the league’s wealthiest club. It’s been a bad week for the Brussels boys in both league and cup. Strangely though, there’s been little talk of crisis with most observers calling for John Van den Brom to just make a few adjustments.
But before we get on to Anderlecht, let’s look at Zulte Waregem who have no such worries, albeit that they have a much smaller squad than their rivals. In the past six days, Zulte have taken six points from their two away matches – at Anderlecht and Charleroi – without conceding a goal. Their performance at Anderlecht was widely praised, especially as it was achieved without the suspended Mbaye Leye and Junior Malanda. Zulte’s win at Charleroi was less impressive as they were outplayed for almost all of the game. They’re on a run though – now 17 games without defeat – and Leye stole the three points with a cracking volley in extra time. Zulte have the best defensive record in the Jupiler Pro League and have so far only conceded eight goals on their travels. This is Francky Dury’s first full season back at Zulte – the club where he made his name – and he more than any individual player is the reason why they are in sight of a Champions’ League place.
Meanwhile, Anderlecht are going through a period of soul searching. Since the winter break, they have looked like a different team – in the worst possible way. In that time, they’ve failed to beat Standard, Genk, Club Brugge and Zulte Waregem; they’ve been knocked out of the cup in dramatic fashion and they’ve seen their lead in the league cut from nine points to three in the space of five days.
Leadership has been sadly lacking. Lucas Biglia’s disappearance with a migraine was not appreciated and neither was Dieumerci Mbokani’s stupidity in getting a red card with an innocuous flick of the boot on Jeroen Simaeys in the cup semi final. Earlier in the season, Milan Jovanovic lost his rag against Standard and was dismissed while the Serb was adamant in the cup semi final that he would not be taking a penalty in the shoot-out. In the event, he did and missed. There have also been recent red cards for Biglia and Bram Nuytinck and more suspensions are on the way based on video footage. Of the senior players, only Proto and Olivier Deschacht have been blameless in recent weeks and it was unfortunate that it was Proto who missed the final penalty on Saturday after saving three himself.
The incoming transfers of Demy De Zeeuw and Samuel Armenteros have not helped the squad so far while there is bound to be a media circus surrounding the impending return of Matias Suarez. Add to that the unavailability for a variety of reasons of Ronald Vargas, Gohi Bi Cyriac and Anthony Vanden Borre, the not unexpected fatigue that’s hit Massimo Bruno and Dennis Praet, and it’s not obvious what Van den Brom can do in the near term. The playoffs will be a major test of his leadership.
On the positive front, the Anderlecht U20 side went to Italy and won the coveted Viareggio Trophy, becoming only the second ‘foreign’ side to do that in 33 years. Danny Roef was elected best keeper of the tournament while Ghanaian striker Franck Acheampong was mentioned in several dispatches. Unfortunately the same team had to fly to Greece just a few days after the Viareggio tournament win to play Olympiakos in the NextGen series. It was a tough call and they lost. Jordan, brother of the more famous Romelu, played in Italy and in Greece. After the Olympiakos game he opined that it would have been preferable to have a referee who had not been Greek.
Staying with youngsters, the Belgian U17 team had a couple of friendlies against Norway during the week. The results (1-1 and 1-3) were not good but coach Bob Browaeys was undoubtedly giving everyone in his squad a run before the real test later in the month. This age group is the one most discussed in the media as being the future of Belgian football. It contains a number of high-profile players, including Charly Musonda Junior (Chelsea), Andreas Pereira (Manchester United), Siebe Schrijvers (Genk), Zakaria Bakkali (PSV) and Mathias Bossaerts (Manchester City). In a few weeks time, they will go to Croatia to face the host country, Spain and France in a Euro U17 qualifying tournament. That will be a fascinating test for this new generation.
By the time the U17 squad land in Croatia, we will just about be ready for the start of the infamous Jupiler Pro League playoffs. The six teams involved will be Anderlecht, Zulte Waregem, Racing Genk, Club Brugge, Standard and Lokeren. Anderlecht will start favourites but with suspensions, tiredness and the walking wounded all likely to be factors, it will be anything but plain sailing. Zulte Waregem are already attracting interest from across Europe, including quite a lot from the Chelsea faithful due to the presence of Thorgan Hazard. If Dury does win the league title, it will be an even greater achievement than that of Eric Gerets when he took unfancied Lierse to the championship back in 1997. Gerets went on to manage championship-winning teams in the Netherlands and Turkey before settling for the money in Saudi Arabia and Qatar. I have a feeling that Dury’s career could be equally successful but without taking quite the same trajectory.
Quote of the week: Tom De Sutter (with a sideways glance at a 32 year-old Serb): “You need balls to take a penalty”.