KRC Genk – Champions of Belgium

After 40 games of typically mad Belgian football, KRC Genk won the ‘winner take all’ tie against Standard Liege last night to claim their 3rd Pro League title in their history and their first since 2002.

The playoffs, as controversial as they are, did manage to throw up a perfect finale to a gruellingly long season. Standard Liege who finished 6th after the regular season of 30 games, hit perfect form at the business end of the season. They came into the game at Cristal Arena with 8 wins from 9 playoff games, whilst Genk had stuttered after a 3-0 beating against Club Brugge.

The unique situation regarding the playoffs meant that Genk and Standard went into the game on level points, but Genk were theoretically 0.5 points ahead. When the points were halved, any team on a odd number were rounded up to a full number, so Standard were given an extra half point. Yes, this is the only league in the world (probably) with this formula. This meant that Genk needed only a draw to lift the championship.

Standard Liege started the game the brighter, with their five man midfield holding the ball well. Former Wolves player Jelle Van Damme, who has been Standard Liege’s catalyst in the second half of the season, was allowed too much space and hit the bar with a cross.

Then the sickening turning point. Nifty winger, Mehdi Carcela was knocked out after a stray boot from Liverpool loanee, Chris Mavinga, and he hit the floor violently. Medical staff immediately rushed onto the field. It was rather similar to the John Terry incident at the League Cup final, in that Carcela’s face felt the full force of Mavinga’s boot. It left the Standard players stunned, notably Mémé Tchité who had to be consoled by a team-mate. Carcela was taken straight to hospital, and diagnosed with a broken nose and fractured jaw.

Genk took advantage and went close with two efforts, one of which was a terrible miss by Marvin Ogunjimi. Their star young-gun Kevin De Bruyne, supposedly the target of many clubs, never stopped trying and was the main creative threat for Genk.

But then the pendulum swung back to the away side right before the end of the half. A curling free-kick by Steven Defour, hit Mavinga on the leg and Eli Mangala got the final touch, sending the away end into raptures. The perfect time to score as well, 2 minutes into injury time.

The second half began as expected with a Genk onslaught. They controlled the game looking for that vital equaliser. Standard keeper Sinan Bolat was in fine form though; first stopping Ogunjimi then tipping a De Bruyne free kick around the post.

Vercauteren then rolled the dice with an attacking substitution, taking off masked captain David Hubert and replacing him with Nigerian Kennedy Nwanganga, who had been on the fringes after signing this year. He’s certainly written his name into Genk folklore now though, with a fantastic header 2 minutes after coming on. The Cristal Arena erupted and the tide turned once again.

The Standard fightback ensued, searching frantically for a goal. But Genk can thank their 19 year-old keeper Thibaut Courtois for producing three excellent saves, two of which from close range. He’s been sensational this year, playing every minute of a title-winning campaign. There have been rumours that Manchester United has scouted him, and I hope they were watching this performance – tremendous composure for a teenage goalkeeper.

Genk held out  and the Genk fans invaded the pitch before the trophy was lifted. Manager Franky Vercauteren ran onto the pitch fist clenched to celebrate with his players. He left Anderlecht in 2007 after poor results and a forgettable spell as national team coach, ‘The Little Prince’ has exorcised the demons of the past with this campaign. His policy of integrating youth players with a solid core at the back has paid dividends and many would agree that Genk deserve their title this season.

As for Standard Liege, they should be commended for a tremendous comeback in 2011, but it looks like the end of Dominque D’Onofrio’s tenure as manager. At times it seemed that Sérgio Conceição was the one doing the motivating from the bench. It would have been tremendously ironic that the team most opposed to the league format would lift the trophy at the end but it wasn’t to be. It will be interesting to see whether they can hold on to their two prized assets in Defour and Witsel during the summer. Likewise, scouts seem to swarming around the Cristal Arena too, with Genk’s stock rising. It was quite fitting that they wore shirts with ‘Mine for Talent’ on them.

Both clubs will be in the Champions League qualifying round, and if Genk keep their spine of their team, they could upset some European giants. That being said, they will be in the Champions side of the 3rd round so could face Rangers or Copenhagen for example. Standard Liege will be in the unseeded side and could face FC Twente, which would see Michel Preud’homme return to the club that he made his name at. Just merely draw speculation at the moment of course.

But what a season in Belgium – coincidently the first I’ve had the pleasure of watching. I’ve seen a player throw a duck off the field and recieve death threats. I’ve had trouble getting my head around 3 sets of playoffs. I’ve seen Charleroi sack umpteen number of managers and Wesley Sonck score an overhead kick in the snow. It’s been an experience, one which you can now follow on the Belgian Waffle – once I’ve sorted out a good logo. Watch this space.

Finally, congratulations to Genk fans. Deserved champions.

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The Curious Career of Anthony Vanden Borre

3/4/10 – the biggest moment in Vanden Borre’s career.

You’re probably thinking; hang on, he was at Portsmouth then, a side bound for relegation. Well yes, he was. This was a dull 0-0 draw, livened up for avid Gillette Soccer Saturday viewers as Chris Kamara’s inexplicably missed Vanden Borre’s dismissal from the game, in a comedic or unprofessional manner, depending on how you view Sky’s comedy vehicle.

In fairness to Kammy, most people have missed Vanden Borre’s career since he left Anderlecht in 2007. If Football Manager were an indication of how Vanden Borre’s should have developed, then he’d certainly be at a top club by now as Mr Utility Man (he’s definitely better than John O’Shea). But as we all know, a football management simulator is not a good judgement of potential, as much as we claim it to be.

Vanden Borre is a true product of the Anderlecht youth-system having joined them as an 8 year old. He made his senior debut around the same time as Vincent Kompany did but their careers are seemingly poles apart now. Whilst Kompany’s reputation as a tough tackling centre-back is reaching near world-class proportions, Vanden Borre’s career stagnated.

The early signs were promising for Vanden Borre as he made his debut in March 2004. Operating normally at right-back (yet capable of playing right midfield, defensive midfield or even centre-back), Vanden Borre would roam right along the flank, daring opponents to face up to him but the pace of the teenager would leave many far behind. He showed great versatility whenever he was called upon in his rookie years, filling in for other players adeptly.

A month later a shock international call-up against Turkey. To put that in perspective, he had played 5 senior games for Anderlecht and it also made him the second youngest Belgian international of all-time, at 16 years and 187 days. He ended 2003/04 with his first league medal with the club.

Vanden Borre quickly established himself as one of  Anderlecht’s key players – sticking at right back most of the time, pacey with a powerful shot. Several European clubs circled (notably Inter Milan and Ajax) but he favoured first-team action and development in Belgium.

The huge pressure placed upon him took its toll in the next few years. After all when Paul Van Himst refers to you as one of the best talents he’s ever seen, it’s fairly insurmountable pressure. Several niggling injuries saw Anderlecht bring in Marcin Wasilewski in 2007, who quickly usurped him at right-back. Vanden Borre also had personal problems at the time, with his mother falling serious ill in the early months of 2007.

His good friend Kompany still backed him to succeed, even saying “He remains the greatest talent on Anderlecht. The club must adapt themselves a bit also to him.  He plays the best on his position on the middle field. In his position he can become the best player from the history of the Belgium football.” High praise, unfortunately never fulfilled as in the summer of  2007, Vanden Borre headed to Serie A to join Fiorentina who paid around 4 million euros for his services.

Vanden Borre said upon leaving “”It was a bitter end, the Anderlecht chapter is now behind me. But I’m not bitter, I don’t have any hard feelings. I owe the club a lot and I won’t forget that. I hoped for a different ending but that’s life,”

Things in Florence couldn’t have started any worse for Vanden Borre as his mother passed away in September 2007; a traumatic event for anyone to deal with, even harder when you’re only 20.

He only made 2 appearances for Viola before joining Genoa on loan (as they were co-owners, with Papa Waigo going the other way). He was unlucky at Fiorentina, in my opinion, as he was unable to get a game with a incredibly strong defence featuring Per Koldrup and Tomáš Ujfaluši for example.

The short drive north to Genoa in January was an attempt to prove his worth to Fiorentina, but it never really got going there either, failing to impress Italians with his apparent eagerness to get forward and distinct lack of positioning. Vanden Borre couldn’t adapt to the more defensive game in Italy, although not helped by his lack of consistency.

Last season saw him join doomed club Portsmouth. Paul Hart who signed him, said: “Now’s the time for him to come up with the goods. We’re looking forward to being a part of that.” Once again, Vanden Borre failed to live up to the billing although you could argue the chances of succeeding at Portsmouth last year were nigh on impossible given the club’s financial woes, which translated onto the pitch. He made 19 appearances in a threadbare squad, and at least showed some fight albeit in vain.

Genoa severed their ties with Vanden Borre in the summer, leaving him to join Belgian club Genk, hence why this piece has been written. Unavailable to play until this January (after playing for 2 clubs in 2010), Vanden Borre has been training and playing reserve games biding his time. But on Saturday, he should hopefully make his debut for the team against Kortrijk.

Vanden Borre was unveiled in September yet has been unavailable until now

Genk have been performing far and above expectations this year with their young squad. Currently 2nd in the league and 6 points off Anderlecht (with a game in-hand), they’ll certainly be there or thereabouts come playoff time. It’s a big game for them, with Anderlecht vs Standard Liege the day after, they could claim back some ground with a Liege win.

But will Vanden Borre’s presence unbalance the side? Early signs suggest no. For one, their manager Frankie Vercauteren coached Vanden Borre at Anderlecht. Secondly, he’s good friends with some of the squad and gives the team a further option in their back four, with Vanden Borre bombing on forward for the defence of Joao Carlos, Torben Joneleit and Eric Matoukou. He’s certainly a useful addition to the Genk team, along with Liverpool loanee Chris Mavinga. Media reports suggest he’s already become a leader in the dressing room too.

You have to feel this move could be Last Chance Saloon for Vanden Borre. He’s been given his opportunity abroad, failed to seize it and returned to the league that made him such a talent. Still only 23 and shaped by tragedies in the last few years, Vanden Borre has to grasp this chance, if he is ever to live up to those early claims of becoming a Belgian superstar. Maybe he might be the catalyst that sees Genk win the league title, above the club that made him.

Here’s a hint of why he was so highly rated circa 2004-2007