Jupiler League champions Racing Genk play Bayer Leverkusen tonight in what will be a moment of truth for the Belgian team. If they lose, and they don’t start favourites, then they really will be playing for third place in Group E in the remainder of the games.
Their draw with Valencia in their first game came as a surprise to many observers, including many of their fans; subsequently, there is a body of opinion that says Genk may well have a role to play in a tough group. Chelsea remain favourites and Valencia are a better team than they showed at the Cristal Arena two weeks ago. As they say, there are no easy games in the Champions League.
At one stage in the summer, it looked as if Genk might lose five or six of the championship-winning side but the team that starts tonight could have 10 players who were on the payroll last season. The biggest loss could have been Thibaut Courtois, to Chelsea via Atletico Madrid, but László Köteles has stepped up to the plate to be Genk’s hero in some recent big games. In the summer, Genk bought Jeroen Simaeys from Club Brugge and he has settled in well in the centre of defence, replacing the injured Torben Joneleit.
The biggest loss this season has been Kevin De Bruyne who missed a couple of months through injury. The young winger was unhappy to be denied a move to Chelsea in the summer but he quickly came to an arrangement with the club, which will probably see him go to London next summer. Unfortunately De Bruyne was injured early in the season and only came back last weekend for 20 minutes in the draw with Leuven. He might start tonight but it’s more likely that he’ll be on the bench with Israeli Eliyaniv Barda in the starting line-up.
The other change has been the departure of coach Franky Vercauteren who has taken the petro-dollars on offer at Al-Jazira. Some people say that you can’t blame Vercauteren for that but others, including the writer, feel that such a move is rather cynical immediately after a club wins the championship. One of the reasons for moving, given by Vercauteren, was that he was unhappy with the prospect of many players leaving Genk!
Dutch coach Mario Been has replaced Vercauteren and has been impressive. It was good to see him pushing his players away from the referee at Leuven last week when decisions had gone against his team. Been is a disciplinarian and is not afraid to leave the bigger names out of the team.
As for the opposition, Leverkusen have lost their last three games: against Chelsea, Cologne and Bayern Munich. Against Munich, last weekend, Leverkusen did not manage one shot on target. Their new coach, Robin Dutt, is also a man not afraid to make tough decisions and that could mean that Michael Ballack starts tonight’s game on the bench. Dutt has been criticised for playing a single striker but he could play both Erin Derdiyak and Stefan Kiessling. Another one to watch is André Schürrie, 20, bought for 8 million euros from Mainz. Despite their recent poor results, Leverkusen are a class team and they will be confident.
With David Hubert, Marvin Ogunjimi, Jelle Vossen and, possibly, De Bruyne, starting the game for Genk, it will be another good test for some of the much-discussed young generation of Belgian footballers. A draw tonight at the Bay Arena will be a very good result indeed.