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…

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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