Benelux Hostilities – Anderlecht Ajax Europa League Preview

As Hermann Van Donk pointed out in the superb book Brilliant Orange, that Holland “always says that the Germans are arrogant – but we are arrogant towards the Belgians. These are very normal feeling that you have between neighbouring countries”

This attitude was best illustrated in 1999 when the two nations shared a manic 5-5 draw. The defining moment falling to Patrick Kluivert, who had the goal at his mercy, but goaded the Belgian defence to tackle him as he tapped it in.

Over the years, Dutch and Belgian clubs have traded talent constantly, from Rob Rensenbrink’s flourishing career at Anderlecht to today, as Jan Vertonghen’s defensive attributes are vital to Ajax. This mutual relationship is coupled with a friendly rivalry between the European neighbours. They met in the Cup Winners Cup of  1988 (between Mechelen and Ajax), with the Belgians shocking the world, but in general, pragmatic Belgium has been in the shadow of its more flamboyant neighbour

But surprisingly their two biggest clubs, having shared almost 60 domestic championships between them, had never met in European competition until last year’s Europa League group stage. But 12 months on, the last 32 draw put these two greats together to tussle once again. You could argue it was a draw neither wanted, both incredibly respectful of each before the tie.

Mohamed Moallim is your guide for AFC Ajax, whilst I’ll do my best to outline the dangermen of RSC Anderlecht. It promises to be a free-flowing fest of football and the match of the round. Well for us two anyway.

RSC Anderlecht

Strengths and Key Players

Let’s get the obvious candidate out of the way. Les Mauves’ prized asset and wonderkid Romelu Lukaku normally leads the line in a 4-3-3 formation. He’s been linked to just about every European juggernaut there has been, since bagging 20 goals in his first full season at Anderlecht, at just 16. I’m fairly certain you will have heard the comparison to Didier Drogba as well, in terms of the teenager’s immense strength and power for his age. It is a truly phenomenal thing to see; George Leekens has already used him (fairly unsuccessfully so far) as the figurehead of a fluid team and his influence is huge.

Take last weekend for example: Anderlecht chose to rest Lukaku for the game against Cercle Brugge. Even against ten men they struggled to break down the ultra-defensive Cercle. Jacobs put him on (replacing Tom De Sutter) in the second half to try get his team that vital goal, which they did in the 90th minute.

 

Talisman, Mbark Boussoufa (Picture courtesy of Kzel)

The breakthrough came from inspirational winger Mbark Boussoufa. The Morroccan narrowly edged out Lukaku to win his second Belgian shoe. He is key to their system, creating on the wing then cutting inside and switching positions with Jonathan Legear which causes havoc. Of course this game will be probably more important to him than anyone, having learnt his trade through the Ajax youth-system. As high as mark of class as any.

Others players to look out for include recent Argentinian call-up Lucas Biglia, who orchestrates the midfield with wonderful passes – a very similar player to Andrea Pirlo, complete with Loreal hair. He’s aided well by Guillaume Gillet, a very flexible midfielder.

The goalkeeper, Silvio Proto broke a club record this weekend, having now gone 840 minutes without conceding in the league. Once accused of being erratic with his tendancy to rush towards any attacker, he now has cemented his place as Belgian’s No. 1.

Weaknesses

It may seem harsh, and possibly ludicrious to some, to criticise a defence that have conceded just 14 times in the league this season. But when put up against much tougher opponents, Zenit St. Petersburg for example, the usually rock solid defence tend to crumble in awe of their opponents. The centre-back pairing of Hungarian Roland Juhasz and Czech Ondřej Mazuch have been almost everpresent for Les Mauves, forming a great understanding. But you have to feel they will be tested severely by Ajax’s forwards. Mazuch is only 21, and has little experience at this level so could be the prime man to target.

Right-back, Marcin Wasilewski has fought back from a career-threatening double leg-break and you’d expect with someone who had suffered such a bad injury, they would lose a yard of pace at least. ‘Wasil’ scored against Zulte Waregem in December and immediately ran to the away fans and thumped his badge with honour. A tremendous servant to the club, but having hit 30 and with said previous injuries, he could be the weak link.

Another huge problem with Anderlecht is their lack of strength in depth. Bar the obvious suspects, you wouldn’t expect any of the benched players, other than midfielder Kanu or US international Sacha Klještan to make an impact in any shape or form. Strikers Matias Suarez, Tom De Sutter and newly signed Dalibor Veselinovic are simply not good enough for this level. Without Boussoufa and Lukaku, they look incredibly average.

Form (in the league)

Anderlecht are currently in the midst of 15-game undefeated streak, which stretches back to the end of October. Right before that they were humbled 5-1 by bitter rivals Standard Liege, which seemed to give Jacobs’ team a wake-up call and they’ve not looked back. They currently sit three points clear of Genk at the top of the Jupiler Pro League and have yet to concede in 2011. Just the right kind of form to bring into European competition.

The manager – Ariel Jacobs

The veteran manager began his coaching career in the Belgian FA, managing various youth teams and nurturing new talent in arguably Belgium’s most exciting era in the late 1980’s into the 1990’s. He then became assistant to Wilfried Van Moer and current coach, George Leekens’ first tenure. He made the step-up to club management in 1998, managing RWD.

His first trophy was with now extinct club La Louviere in 2003, when he won the Belgian Cup. This was a fantastic achievement and Jacobs was (and still is) known for that nurturing of talent, giving Peter Odemwingie his break in Europe for example. Eventually he wound up at Anderlecht as assistant coach to Franky Vercauteren (strangely enough his rival for the title this year, since he’s at Genk). This seemed an appointment in waiting, and Vercauteren left in November 2007.

Jacobs had to wait until last year to taste championship success, ending the dominance of Standard Liege for the time being at least. His policy of integrating youth players into the side has reaped dividends on the pitch and certainly off it too, with an astronomical fee for Lukaku expected in the next transfer window.

AFC Ajax

Strengths

Historically, Ajax’s strengths have been its attacking play. This still applies today, even though they are a far cry from some of their glorious sides of the past, they still play to attack.

With Luis Suárez departing in late January for Liverpool, it diminished somewhat – the Uruguayan was responsible for 35 out of Ajax’s impressive tally of 106 goals in the league last season – if you also add what else he brings, it’s a massive loss if an adequate replacement isn’t found soon. Although, Suárez hardly featured in Frank de Boer’s XI, due to a domestic ban he was serving prior to his move.

De Boer’s arrival after Martin Jol’s departure in early December brought a feel good factor back to the club. On the pitch he reverted Ajax back to their traditional 4-3-3, and more emphasis on wing-play and having an able playmaker playing off a number 9.

The goals haven’t flown in at an incredible rate but he has somewhat rekindled some players, who have already shown more than they did in the first half of the season.

Weaknesses

If attack is the teams strength, then defence/defending is the weakness. In saying that Ajax doesn’t have a bad defence theoretically (on paper) Gregory van der Wiel is one of the brightest young right fullback around, Jan Vertonghen has been Ajax’s most consistent player and a all round talent and Toby Alderweireld has come on strong.

What lets them down is the concentration level, if one nods off then chaos ensues.

The left-full back position has been a worry, especially as Urby Emanuelson has left – even though it’s not really his best position De Boer would rather trust him than say Anita. Right now it’s held by Daley Blind, despite the immense talent he posses, I’m of the mind that it’s too not his best role.

Another weakness stems from the strength, the tempo, De Boer in the system he wants to play, requires quick movement. So far the play has been languid which tends to mean any build-up or counterattack is broken down. It’s still early days in his tenure, but this is one area he would like to correct immediately.

Key players

With Suarez gone, Ajax has to look for other players to emerge from the shadows and take a great degree of responsibility. There are some candidates, and good ones. Siem de Jong whose been a mainstay in the team for the past year has emerged as De Boer’s number 9 of choice, despite being a natural midfield he’s taken to the role of playing the false #9 – he keeps the ball moving, holds it well and allows team mates involved in the play and he has the knack of finding the goal.

Another player is the rejuvenated Miralem Sulejmani, often played as a left-forward under Jol. It looked like he would be surplus to requirement last summer, but a possible loan move to West Ham broke down but its under De Boer that he is showing glimpses of the player that Ajax broke the bank for – playing as a right-forward, Sulejmani has everything to succeed, his dribbling is a strong suit and so is his finishing, taking on a fullback is no problem and so is crossing. He has become the face of De Boer’s tenure so far, he or Christian Eriksen.

Christian Eriksen, another of Europe's most exciting emerging talents (Photo courtesy of Martini DK)

The 19-year-old Danish sensation was a bit-part player under Jol (which is fair enough) but he’s now a crucial component in the makeup of the team. As a trequartista, Eriksen pulls the strings – though he’s not known to be a proven goal scorer, it’s his vision, passing and playmaking abilities that excite De Boer more than anything, and as soon as he took charge he highlighted Eriksen as the one who could take Ajax back to the top. A player mature for his age, he has spoken of his desire to stay at the club to develop instead of moving elsewhere, and there are a plenty of suitors.

Form (in the league)

As a season overall, it’s not been the best. What started as a promise faded as Jol’s tactics became stale and players frustrated. De Boer revitalised but a 3-0 defeat away to FC Utrecht derailed any comeback for the league, they’ve since gone on to record wins but a recent 2-2 draw at Roda means the side are 5 points behind the joint leaders PSV and FC Twente. Of course that lead can be cut down but with games running out Ajax’s priority could mean qualifying for the Champions League for next season becomes the major goal.

The manager

One of Ajax’s greatest players, Frank de Boer played under Louis van Gaal in Ajax’s great side of the mid 90’s with a degree of success. That greately inspired his footballing vision and how he wants Ajax to play.

This role is his first major one and becomes only a select few to have managed the side after previously playing for the club with distinction, before the role his major position was Bert van Marwijk assistant with the Dutch national team that got to the World Cup final.

At the same time he worked at De Toekomst, Ajax’s fabled youth academy, and it’s this education and expertise of the future talents that might have gotten him the job – the cynic in me see’s a couple of first team players leaving in the summer. If Ajax decide to invest by bringing through some of the young talents then who better to coach them.

Already the likes of Jody Lukoki, Lorenzo Ebecilio and Araz Özbiliz (albeit he played one game under Jol, after being pressured into playing with wingers) have made their debuts and featured under him.

So there we have it, a quick guide into Belgium and Holland’s most successful teams. Here’s an interesting stat: Anderlecht have played ten games against Dutch opposition with a record that reads W8 D2 L0. Only one winner then…but for balance here’s Edgar Davids goal in that ten goal thriller:

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Player Profile – Balazs Dzsudzsak

In what will hopefully be a long running series on 6pointer, Player Profiles intends to highlight some of Europe’s most promising talents, right across from the Faroe Islands to Russia. Freddie Shires looks at PSV and Hungary’s best product for several years, Balazs Dzsudzak.

Since the days of Puskas’ Mighty Magyars, who dominated the international football scene during the early 1950s, I doubt many would contest the argument that Hungarian football has undoubtedly failed to live up to the enormously high standards that this legendary “Golden Team “created. 1986 was the last time we were graced with Hungary’s presence at the World Cup finals, and it has largely been a downward spiral ever since.

Dzsudzsak holds the ball from another hot prospect Adam Johnson, could we see him in the Premier League soon?

Consistently poor performances throughout qualifying tournaments and a constant string of managerial changes have done nothing for the stability of the side and even some promising displays during the 2010 World Cup qualifiers against the likes of Denmark, Sweden, and Portugal, could not save Dutchman Erwin Koeman’s job. Premier League fans will be aware of the likes of Zoltan Gera and Gabor Kiraly, but it is fair to say that this once great footballing nation has failed to come even close to producing a single player capable of establishing themselves as a household name amongst fans of the global game in many a year.

This all could be about to change however with the emergence of PSV winger, Balazs Dzsudzsak. His name may be a bit of a mouthful, but one can guarantee it will not be long before everyone is attempting to master its tricky pronunciation, as Dzsudzsak is quickly establishing himself as one of the most exciting players in the Eredivisie and attracting interest from a number bigger clubs across Europe.

Beginning his career at local club side Debrecen, Dzsudzsak made his first team debut in 2005, at the age of 18, after spending the previous season out on loan at lower league side Letavertes, and quickly became a vital part of a team which would go on to win three straight Hungarian league titles from 2005 to 2007. A stellar season in 2006/2007, which saw him score 7 goals in 23 games, did not go unnoticed, as Dzsudzsak was voted the Hungarian League player of the year and made his senior debut for the national team.

Beginning the 2007/2008 season in similar fashion with a further 5 goals in 13 games, convinced then Dutch league champions PSV to snap up the promising Hungarian prodigy for an undisclosed fee in October 2007, and, after a slow start, Dzsudzsak soon repaid the faith shown in him by the club’s hierarchy. 2008 saw Dzsudzsak burst onto the scene, becoming a regular in the PSV side out on the left wing, exciting crowds with his raw pace, precise dribbling, tenacious attitude, and consistently accurate free kicks and long range shots, which continue to embarrass goalkeepers throughout the league.

Over the calendar year of 2009, Dzsudzsak finished behind only Luis Suarez in league goals, with an impressive 17 from midfield, and created the most assists in the entire Eredivisie, with 15 in 32 games, winning numerous league and club awards and becoming arguably the most indispensible player in a somewhat underachieving PSV side, fuelling speculation that a move to another top European side could soon be on the cards.

Observing him on the ball, one can immediately see Dzsudzsak plays with a perfect blend of supreme technique and pace, reminiscent of a player in the mould of David Ginola or younger Ryan Giggs, terrorizing fullbacks with his ability to glide past them with ease or deliver a killer ball into the box from out on either wing. He too has shown the talent to play the role of a genuine playmaker, capable of shifting inside to a more central role, effectively as a no. 10, where his accurate passing game can cut through the tightest of defences and create numerous goal scoring opportunities for his side’s strikers.

Comfortable using both feet, the Hungarian’s greatest assets however remain his ability from set pieces and powerful shooting from outside the area, both strengths which have hugely contributed to his goal tally and make him a genuine danger to opposition defenders whenever he receives the ball near the box.

 

Dzsudzsak recieves a red card from Mike Dean in last season's Europa League for a push on the official. (Getty Images)

 

Possessing a resolute attitude to the game, his gritty determination to win the ball and dogged playing style is comparable to another player who once stared in the Dutch top flight, Liverpool’s high energy striker-cum-winger Dirk Kuyt, though it too has unsurprisingly landed him in trouble with officials on more than one occasion. He has been well known during his two and a half seasons in Holland to become overly frustrated and loose his cool at times when the rub of the green is going against him and will need to learn to curb his aggression should he wish to progress and grow as a player in the near future.

Ultimately though, there is no questioning Dzsudzsak’s commitment and love for the game, which has endeared him to PSV fans and make them dread the inevitable day when he does eventually move on to pastures new. The likes of Arsenal, Juventus, and even Real Madrid were all reportedly interested in his services this summer and it will surely not be long before we see the 23 year old Hungarian winger plying his trade for a major club in England, Italy, or Spain.

As the old saying goes, one player certainly does not make a team, and as such Dzsudzsak’s emergence has not yet translated into a turnaround in fortunes for the national team, though if the country continues to produce players of his calibre, the return of Hungary to the World stage may not be too far around the corner.

Follow Freddie on Twitter @fshires for informative views on football, cycling and American football.

6 things you probably didn’t know about FK Rabotnicki

I’ll be honest with you. My Macedonian football knowledge extends only to Goran Pandev and recently released PNE midfielder Velice Shumulikoski (coincidently who I let rot in the reserves on Football Manager 09 at Ipswich).

Of course we can’t forget the goal David Seaman conceded from a corner at St Mary’s in 2002, which ended his tenure in international football. I still think David Seaman is vastly underrated as a keeper, but of course reputations will live on in players. Just ask Titus Bramble.

Macedonian football isn’t exactly held in high regard in the Europe. Currently ranked 39th in the UEFA Country coefficient, the chances of pulling off an upset is extremely unlikely. But to draw one of the biggest clubs in Europe for a European tie must be relished by Macedonians. In fact, Macedonia have two teams in the competition. Teteks are the other side and their tie against is slightly easier against Elfsborg.

Unfortunately for them, the big name players have all been rested for the game. No Steven Gerrard, Joe Cole, Pepe Reina, Fernando Torres and so on. A fit Alberto Aquilani has travelled though. This will allow Roy Hodsgon in his first competitive game in charge of Liverpool, to field some of his new signings. These will include Serbian striker Milan Jovanovic and highly rated Scot Danny Wilson. We should see some of younger players get a game too so Jay Spearing and former Charlton player Jonjo Shelvey being two such examples.

In the build-up to the game, even Rabotnicki’s coach has written off his side’s chances but will give it their all.

He said: “We have knocked out Mika, enabling fans in Macedonia to see one of the best teams next week. This is a great success for Rabotnicki and for Macedonian football. We are aware that Liverpool are 99% favourites, even in Skopje, but I can promise we will give our best”

So here’s a small guide to the club Liverpool will face in the Europa League 3rd Qualifying Round

1.Rabotnicki were founded in 1937 and are known as the Railway Boys of the four Skopje clubs (similar to Lokomotiv Moscow). They play in all red like Liverpool and the change strip is, as Michael Barrymore might say all white. Wow a tame Barrymore joke.

2.European football isn’t exactly new to them either. They faced Bolton in 06/07 in the first round of the Uefa Cup losing on aggregate 2-1. This was a rare win under now Liverpool assistant manager Sammy Lee at the club, but at least Sammy knows how to mastermind a win over them. The season before they played Lille in the 3rd qualifying round of the Champions League but  lost 4-0.
3.Rabotnicki have won the Macedonia First League (Macedonia Prva Liga) 3 times since it was rebranded in 1992. And to think Sky chose the English rather than Macedonian one. They were champions in 2005, 2006, 2008.
4.The main reason for the success in recent years is due to the takeover of the club in 2001 by iron ore company Kometal. The money invested into the club has seen them recruit several Brazilian players (a trend in many Eastern European countries) but Kometal ended their relationship with the club in 2008. Consequently, Rabotnicki haven’t been as successful since.

5.Of this Brazilian brigade, the player to be most wary of striker Wandeir. In fact, he recently acquired Macedonian citizenship and now plays for the national side. He joined Rabotnicki in 2009 and scored 9 in 17 games last year. He also had spell in Portugal with Naval. Another player to watch could be Fabio Silva, who is currently the topscorer in the Europa League so far, with 5 goals. Rabotnicki also have a Lampard like midfielder in Bobi Božinovski. He grabbed 15 goals for them last season. Shame that the defence will be under most scrutiny.

6. Rabotnicki play in the Phillip II Arena in Skopje. It has a capacity of 35,000 and is shared with rivals FK Vardar. It is currently undergoing expansion.

Will the Liverpool faithful come out in droves to the Phillip II Arena?

There we have it, your short guide to one of Macedonia’s biggest sides. I don’t think this tie is easy as Liverpool fans may think. They’ll go through but without key players and a shaky pre-season under a new boss, it could be tighter than many predict.