Sporting Charleroi: A season of turmoil

Yesterday, after the long and protracted relegation saga, Charleroi were relegated to the 2nd tier of Belgian football after 26 years amongst the elite clubs. 

It was a bleak day in the history of the club. Several top Belgian players have plied their trade at Charleroi, notably Enzo Scifo, Philippe Albert whilst Daniel Van Buyten and Everton’s Marouane Fellaini both came through Charleroi’s youth system.

But memories of past glories and European qualfication have well and truly been eradicated this season. Everything that could have gone wrong this season did go wrong. If you were to compare this campaign to that of an English side, it would have to be Newcastle United 08/09. With the obvious comparisons of playing in the same colours, and having expectations that outstrip the actual quality of the side, there’s another glaring similarity to Newcastle. A megalomaniac chairman.

'Abbas, Proud of yourself?'

Abbas Bayat certainly courts controversy. The Iranian businessman took over the club in the middle of the last decade, and has instigated a slow decline ever since. Since Jacky Mathijssen left in 2007, the club has had 10 different managers including Scots John Collins and Tommy Craig, as well as former Hearts manager Csaba Laszlo who given the chop right at the end of this year. The maximum tenure being one full season if you’re lucky.

Just this season alone, Charleroi have had 5 different bosses – a ridiculous number. Even more ridiculous when you find out Charleroi changed boss after losing one playoff game. Still, to balance, Eupen sacked their boss and brought back Danny Ost, which proved to be a good move.

The season started terribly for Les Carolos. A win against Eupen on Matchday 2 was their only one in the Jupiler Pro League until February, making them a nailed on candidate for the relegation playoffs. Off the field, Bayat sacked his nephew Mogi, who was general manager at the club. Seemingly not face-to-face according to some reports.

With only one win to their name, Bayat scoured the European free agent market for players, adding 11 new players in January. According to my possibly inaccurate calculations, Charleroi have used around 40 players during the season, taking squad rotation to levels that only Rafa Benitez knows.

Only one newcomer has proved to be a great signing – Dudu Biton from Israeli club Hapoel Petah Tikva, who’s scored 5 goals in his 11 games at the club. That’s around 25% of the squad’s entire goals all season, possibly suggesting why Charleroi are at rock bottom.But from February onwards, Charleroi put up a little fight, picking up the odd win against fellow strugglers. But all in vain in the end.

Now, as many of you know who follow me on Twitter, I don’t like the Playoff system in Belgium. Actually it’s pretty complex and stupid, considering the fact that Standard Liege can win the league after a dire regular season being 16 points off the pace.

The relegation format is equally bamboozling. Five games between the bottom two, with Eupen getting a 3 point head-start, and an extra game at home. However, the football for the neutral has been breathtaking – with so much on the line, things get tense and inevitably players lost it. See Game No.3 – Eupen 4-2 Charleroi, which ultimately left Charleroi on the brink

Last night’s game was equally enthralling. Eupen went two up thanks to Macedonian Marko Obradovic’s brace minutes after coming on. The second was a fantastic looping long-ranger, which caused a Charleroi season-ticket holder to run onto the field, and the rest duly followed. The Charleroi ultras began to throw missiles onto the field and play was stopped. Not the first time that the fans have got into hot water, after the Walloon derby incident where tennis balls were thrown onto the pitch.

After a seven minute hold-up, the game restarted and Charleroi were invigorated, scoring twice through Kudemor and Biton deep, deep in injury time. By that I mean 13 minutes into injury time

Their valliance wasn’t enough. Charleroi were down. Eupen now face three playoff sides in D2 to see who earns the right to play in the Jupiler Pro League next season

Hooligans rioted outside with police, who deployed the water cannons. While their actions are wrong, you can understand the frustration of the faithful. A sad day for Charleroi. But who’s to blame?

If you were to ask former manager Jacky Mathijssen, it’s entirely down to the chairman. If you were to ask the fans – it’s entirely down to the chairman.

Charleroi 10/11 – a dummy’s guide for how not to run a football club. They’ll be back, but will it take the chairman to step down for that to occur?

The Next Golden Generation?

The future is bright, the future is Belgium. Apparently.

To start off – I hate using that phrase. Golden Generation. Synonymous with English national failure with the FA/English media using it to describe the crop of the last decade when they clearly achieved nothing other than mediocrity. The only real country that deserve to be described as truly having a generation of talented players is of course the World Cup holders Spain, with graduates of La Masia finally fulfilling the promises bestowed upon them.

It is with great trepidation that I write this article proclaiming Belgium to be the nation with a golden generation.

You’ve probably heard of several of their team, with names flooding the transfer gossip pages of every reputable rag (and some less reputable). The usual ‘most-wanted’ suspects of Romelu Lukaku, Eden Hazard, Steven Defour and Axel Witsel all seem destined for bigger things in the near future. Combine that with a solid core of Premier League talent in Vincent Kompany, Thomas Vermaelen and Marouane Fellaini (although the last two are injured at the moment) and highly rated Ajax pair Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld (again injured, you’ll note a theme here) you have the basis of a decent side.

Time is on Belgium’s side too. Of the current squad, only Daniel Van Buyten and Timmy Simons seem set to retire before 2016. The youth policies installed at many Jupiler Pro League sides in the last decade seem to be finally reaping the dividends with several scouts flocking to watch Belgium’s game in Vienna against Austria.

It was a crucial game in Group A of Euro 2012 qualifying, with Belgium needing to win to have any realistic chance of making the play-offs (the group is Germany’s to lose). Manager Georges Leekens sprung a surprise opting to leave Ligue Un’s best player Eden Hazard on the bench, saying pre-match that he felt Hazard’s lack of height in the centre would unbalance the side.

Technically, this seemed a sound defensive reason; after all Austria have a freakishly tall team even with 6’8′ Stefan Maierhofer on the bench, and hadn’t lost at home in qualifying since 2008.

It takes some guts to drop your country’s most creative player and could have spelt the end for Leekens had his side been beaten. His solution was to use the Standard Liege duo of Steven Defour and Axel Witsel as the lifeblood of the team. Both know each other inside out, and without becoming too cliche, Witsel is half as good without Defour alongside him. Think of a much-low grade version of Xavi-Iniesta, with a bit more grit.

Despite missing targetman Romelu Lukaku and goalkeeper Silvio Proto, Belgium started brightly and grabbed an early goal through Witsel capitalising on a deflected cross to head home. The front-four were electric: Twente’s Nacer Chadli and Fulham’s Moussa Dembele worked the flanks effectively, giving the Austrian full-backs trouble as they went out wide repeatedly. Genk’s Marvin Ogunjimi’s was a bit passive up front on his own, but this allowed Witsel to assume the ‘Fellaini’ position – basically box-to-box although much more effectively than Fellaini had in previous internationals.

Austria came back late in the first-half but Leekens’ tactics were holding them at bay. Controlled possession didn’t let them near the ball and at times you wondered who were the home team.

Early in the second half, Witsel picked up his second. A wonderful passing move saw the Red Devils parked in the final third. A sensational cross from Laurent Ciman found Witsel at the back post. Nonchalantly,he chested it down and smashed it home. Not a bad goal to score in-front of Bayern Munich scouts. Previously, Witsel was notorious for breaking Marcin Wasilewski’s leg, but he seems to be letting his skill do the talking and be allowed to concentrate on his game.

Belgium then held out until full-time, with Austria rarely troubling debutant keeper Simon Mignolet. The travelling 2,000 Belgians went home in jovial spirits, but certainly weren’t getting carried away. Belgium beat Russia at the end of 2010, only to draw with Finland in the next friendly. That didn’t stop the Belgian press though. One match report headline literally translating as “A winning team is born”.

The next game was equally important to create momentum against Berti Vogts’ Azerbaijan side. They had endured a pretty torrid qualifying campaign, bar one standout result by beating Turkey. Leekens again left Hazard on the bench and brought in Genk’s fox-in-the-box Jelle Vossen up top.

What followed was another, more-or-less emphatic result. Defour was once again central to everything Belgium did in the game. The most encouraging aspect of the game was the amount of times Belgium tested the Azerbaijan keeper, 25 shots in total. Sure, the opposition wasn’t the most challenging but it’s important to string together results and it has ultimately changed Belgium’s qualifying campaign.

Maximum points this month sets up a potential play-off decider against Guus Hiddink’s Turkey in June at the Roi Baudouin. The signs are encouraging: scoring at will, more fluidity than the disjointed play with Hazard and Fellaini present. Leekens definitely has created a conundrum for himself, but with so many young talented players at his disposal, it’s a position many European managers would be envious of. Leekens didn’t left Kevin De Bruyne and Yassine El Ghanassy in the U21’s, both having great seasons domestically.

So will this team match those of years gone by. Will they emulate the likes of Preud’homme, Scifo, Van Himst, Gerets and Ceulemans, or even go further? I’d said previously that I thought 2012 would come around too soon for this crop. There’s still a long way to go, but I might have to revise that opinion. Let’s not get carried away…