Francky Dury’s Zulte Waregem – all for one and one for all[/caption]In July I wrote that Zulte Waregem would be one of seven teams happy to avoid relegation. How wrong can you be? With the end of the classic season approaching, Zulte are second in the table behind Anderlecht. They are seven points clear of Standard Liege and nine points ahead of Club Brugge. That’s remarkable given the crowds – the capacity is 10,000 – and the size of the budget: € 8.4 million.
One of the reasons for the success – at least for three of the movers and shakers at Zulte – could be the determination to prove other clubs wrong. The coach is ex policeman Francky Dury who made his name at Zulte Waregem, taking the club from the amateur leagues to the first division and winning the Cup – with entry to Europe – along the way. Dury was then enticed to Gent, one of the country’s bigger clubs, where he was sacked after failing to get that club into Europe. Now back at Zulte Waregem, Dury has put together a team that mixes youth and experience.
Two players keen to get revenge are French midfielder Franck Berrier and Senegalese striker Mbaye Leye. Both players came to prominence with Zulte Waregem before moving on. They came together at Standard Liege a couple of years ago, from where they were unceremoniously dumped at the end of last season. Berrier is one of many ex-Standard players who feel that they suffered when Luciano D’Onofrio left the banks of the Meuse. Now back at Zulte Waregem, Berrier has been scoring and making goals while Leye is their first choice centre forward.
Together with Anderlecht, Zulte Waregem have the best defensive record in the league: 25 goals conceded in 26 games. In defence, players like Davy De Fauw, Karel D’Haene and Steve Colpaert are unsung heroes, with the first two nearing the veteran stage. Dury has them well-organised and the team has not lost – just like Anderlecht – for 15 games.
Zulte’s midfield is perhaps the most interesting sector. If Berrier is the general of the team, his first lieutenant is Thorgan Hazard. Brother of the more famous Eden, Thorgan will be 20 next month and surprisingly went on loan to Zulte Waregem after moving from Lens to Chelsea at the beginning of the season. Many theories abounded as to why the younger Hazard, who had not broken through to the Lens first team, was moving to Premier League giant Chelsea. Regardless of the stories, mainly negative, Thorgan has impressed at Zulte where he has played in central midfield and on the flanks. One of his best goals – a real cracker – came against Waasland-Beveren. He’s recently joined the Belgium U21 team and his future looks bright, although breaking into the Chelsea first team could be a big ask.
The muscle in midfield is provided by Junior Malanda, who joined the club from Lille at the beginning of the season. He’s only 18 and learning fast. Incredibly strong, Malanda patrols the centre of the pitch and looks like one for the future; he was said to be the target of a €6 million bid by Fulham in January. Also in midfield, Jonathan Delaplace should not be overlooked; at 26, he’s been an almost ever-present after arriving from the depths of the French third division.
On Wednesday, Zulte Waregem will visit Anderlecht. With that game on the horizon, both Leye and Malanda were a little too keen to get a booking in a recent match so they could purge their suspensions when Zulte played Charleroi last weekend. Unfortunately, for those players and neutral spectators, that match was called off due to the state of the pitch. The two Zulte players will miss the Anderlecht clash. Strangely, there have not been any conspiracy theories.
Whatever happens during the interminable playoffs, it will have been a great season for Zulte Waregem. And Dury, Berrier and Leye will have taken one more step to redemption.