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 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…

Player Profile – Jonathan Legear

He’s constantly linked to a move away from Anderlecht, so the time seems right for an in-depth analysis on Les Mauves tricky winger. Chris Mayer looks at the career of Jonathan Legear

Since actively following the Belgian Pro League this season, I’ve noticed a few things. Firstly, a lot of people are built like Panzer tanks, complete with the manoeuvrability. It’s mainly about muscles in Brussels. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing however, you get fairly robust games, full of reckless tackles, certainly entertaining in its own way.  Secondly, anyone who is less than 6ft tall and provides such flair stands out straight away. Jonathan Legear is certainly the latter.

Operating on the right wing normally for Anderlecht, he offers something completely different to the rest of the team. Whilst Romelu Lukaku and Kanu tend to provide the hold-up play, Legear is seen marauding down the flank normally tormenting the opposing left-back, who has the unenviable task of trying to stop him.

This season Anderlecht haven’t looked exactly like a dominant force. Several times the side haven’t clicked at all, with the 5-1 defeat away to Standard Liege still irking the faithful despite a decent response since then. One thing is clear, Jonathan Legear is a rare product of the Belgium system. As seen in those Belgians who’ve made it in the Premier League, they all share a similar attribute, height and strength. Kompany, Vermaelen, Fellaini are such examples of this and it’s uncommon to see someone so flashy being linked to the Premier League, especially to Newcastle and Everton.

Legear spent the majority of his youth career at fierce rivals Standard Liege although he could never break into the side. Standard Liege had a superb crop of players in the academy such as Logan Bailly, Sebastian Pocognoli and Kevin Mirallas. All of them current international players, yet none of them could force their way into the side.

By 2003, sick of waiting for his debut and fearing he could stagnate as a player, Legear moved to Anderlecht despite an supposed agreement that barred the big three clubs selling to each other. After spending another season in development, he finally received his debut in 2004 against his former club Standard Liege. Talk about being thrown in the deep end. Hugo Broos, now Zulte coach, also gave Vincent Kompany and Antony Vanden Borre their debuts in that title winning season, all at 16. Kompany and Vanden Borre grasped the chance, Legear wasn’t yet ready and was clearly unprepared for the hostile reception he faced at the Stade Dufrasne and faded badly.

Doppelganger

05/06 wasn’t that fruitful either for Legear as he attempted to solidify his position in the first team. Unfortunately for him he was hampered by several injuries and the fact that Christan Wilhemsson was the star winger at Anderlecht at the time. Legear was considered a small clone of him, and much more fragile. The similarities in appearance are unnerving.

Wilhelmsson departed for a European tour and it seemed Legear was ready to take his place. Well no, Kompany and Vanden Borre had both been sold for considerable fees and Anderlecht brought in Egyptian Ahmed Hassan (one of the best players at the previous African Cup of Nations) and Mbark Boussofa, still going strong in the Anderlecht line up.

It took the appointment of Ariel Jacobs as coach before Legear was considered the viable option down the right, giving the side some much needed speed. Legear went quietly about his business, breaking free on the counter and leaving many a defender for dead. Dinamo Moscow noticed the nippy Belgian and put in a bid to prise him away from Brussels.

But his real breakthrough on the European stage was in last season’s Europa League, in fact the first time I’d really sat up and taken notice of him. He utterly rampaged through full-backs, providing 6 goals and 4 assists, easily the most valuable player in that competition. Here’s two of his best against Bilbao and HSV; foot like a traction engine:

Anderlecht ended the dominance of Liege last season, picking up the title with Legear being the creator to his team’s 62 goals, aiding Romelu Lukaku’s astronomic rise. He’s a gifted free-kick specialist, adept at cutting inside and coolly slotting a shot into the net.

National coach, George Leekens gave him his international debut against Kazakhstan in October, and excelled in a vital 2-0 away win. He grabbed an assist in that crazy 4-4 draw against Austria too.

The main problem for Legear is being surrounded by many other prodigies, most notably Eden Hazard, who was magnificent in yesterday’s win in Russia. Legear will once again have to wait for regular international football but in time, he will be ever present.

Combining with Boussofa really does give Anderlecht a nitrous injection, creating so much for that solid spine of the side, and it seems to be the main reason for the English interest.

Educated feet, he’s got more or less all the attributes to succeed in the Premier League for certain. He’s just clocked up a century for Anderlecht and still only 23. The question is not if Jonathan Legear will move to a top league, it’s when.