An historic night for KAA Gent in the Champions League
With surprise package Charleroi and crisis-ridden Standard Liège dropping out in the preliminary stages, there are just three Pro League teams who will take part in European competition proper this season. The sole entrant in the Champions League is KAA Gent, who enter the group stages for the very first time after last season’s dramatic maiden title win.
|Champions League Group H|
For quite a few years now, KAA Gent have threatened to become a genuine force in Belgian football all while wrestling with a debt that once stood at €23 million, a prohibitive sum by Belgian standards. After a cup win in 2010, some ill-advised managerial appointments and a new state-of-the-art stadium that puts pretty much everything else in Belgium to shame, they finally climbed the summit last season overhauling regular season ‘winners’ Club Brugge in the controversial play-off phase. You can read more about Gent’s long path to their first championship here.
Since Gent became champions, there have been many jibes that their league title is undeserved due to the circumstances in which it was won. Although their chairman Ivan De Witte was the most prominent supporter of the play-off system, the majority of clubs agreed to its implementation with the notable exception of Standard. It is nothing new and has, unfortunately in my view, become a way of life in the Pro League. Coming off a poor 2013-14 campaign, Gent were not encumbered with European football and they were consequently a lot fresher than Anderlecht or Club Brugge in the spring. That said, they have been in the position of pacesetters (in Trond Sollied’s most recent spell) right throughout the regular season only to fall away at the business end of the season. Ultimately, this system is now entrenched and so any team who finishes atop the ladder after 40 games with a fixture calendar weighted towards more games against the better sides does deserve to be crowned. To fail to recognise this, even while acknowledging the folly of the play-off syste, is in my view churlish.
Although they first entered European competition back in 1963, Gent do not have a strong European pedigree. Inspired by one of Belgium’s greatest ever goalscorers in Erwin Vandenbergh, they reached the quarters of the old UEFA Cup back in the 1991/92 campaign losing out to Louis van Gaal’s Ajax who went on to win the competition. Their only previous dalliance in the Champions League was in 2010-11 when they were knocked out in the qualifiers by Dynamo Kyiv.
De Buffalo’s are the only unbeaten side left in the Pro League after seven games of the regular season but don’t let that fool you. They have only won twice this season and have struggled to find the back of the net, registering just seven goals. Laurent Depoitre has continued from where he left off last season with four league strikes but otherwise Gent have been unable to escape the general malaise affecting the top teams this season. On the opening weekend, they were unable to score a winner with a numerical advantage for the last 30 minute while away to Anderlecht (1-1) they were accused of playing like prima donnas in the first half (but responded well). A 2-2 home draw with Mechelen was most entertaining but Gent were worryingly open and lacked the tactical cohesion and shape that has become their hallmark. Although a 1-1 draw in Waregem is not the worst result in a tricky game before a Champions League debut, having taken the lead they failed to hold on with ex-striker Mbaye Leye netting the equaliser. If this lack of a cutting edge and killer instinct is yet to result in any defeats at home, they are much more likely to be punished against higher quality opposition in the Champions League. Hopefully, they can rise to the occasion.
Uniquely among Belgian champions since perhaps Lierse in 1997, this KAA Gent outfit are without any genuine superstars. There is no Mbark Boussoufa or Bryan Ruiz (described by club watcher Pierre Hellebaut as the best Gent player he has seen in his 30 years covering the club) and the coach Hein Vanhaezebrouck would have it no other way.
Matz Sels is a most commanding figure between the sticks. The young goalkeeper had already done an admirable job stepping into Eiji Kawashima’s shoes at Lierse and earned his big move. So consistent is his form that he even has an outside chance of making the Belgian squad for Euro 2016 although Marc Wilmots prefers the experience of Mechelen custodian Jean-François Gillet.
Gent generally operate with a three-man defence, the profile of which is rather interesting. Rafinha came to the club as a rightback and played there in previous managers’ 4-3-3 systems while Nana Asare initially made waves for both Mechelen and Utrecht down the left flank, either in defence or midfield. In between them has been Lasse Nielsen – the fearsome Dane has been one of the few shining lights this term. ‘Mister Europe’, Erik Johansson, their record buy for €2m and bought ostensibly for this campaign hence his nickname, will miss at least the first three games, which is a blow despite his difficulties settling in to his new environment. One man who could come in, fitness permitting, is Stefan Mitrovic who made his name at KV Kortrijk and while it is a surprise he has not succeeded abroad, it is a welcome one for Vanhaezebrouck.
Sven Kums is a player who flourished under Vanhaezebrouck at Kortrijk but he has taken his game to a new level in Gent. The midfield general who is his manager’s presence on the pitch, he is critical to the gameplan and to any hope of securing any form of post-Christmas European football. Renato Neto provides a powerful presence alongside Kums and has been able to overcome a difficult start to his Gent career. They provide the platform for the more attacking weapons in this Gent side. Thomas Foket is the Belgian u21 rightback but operates as a wingback in this system. Whereas he is a defender by trade, his left-sided equivalent is generally a midfielder meaning there is something of an asymmetry to the formation. Moses Simon, Kenny Saïef and Brecht Dejaegere have all played down the left this season though Simon and Dejaegere in particular are able to play in more advanced areas.
Gent tend to play with two strikers up front – a classic little and large combination. Laurent Depoitre’s goals were important last season but they only tell part of the story. The former KV Oostende target man can in many ways be likened to Olivier Giroud. Depoitre is a joy to watch in how he brings his team mates into play, be it with his aerial ability, hold up play or intelligent runs into space. What he lacks in outright pace in his legs, he makes up for between the ears. He is a player who makes those around him shine. His foil up front is the singing show auditioning, snooker-playing Benito Raman, whose pace is an important outlet and the ‘pocket rocket’ is a popular figure with the supporters. Depending on whether Gent play one or two strikers, Danijel Milicevic can play centrally in support of the front two or as one of the two most attacking midfielders behind the main forward. Blessed with speed, an ability to cross the ball and the craft to open up defences, he is one of my favourite players in the league.
Despite the workmanlike image of their coach, Gent have won plaudits for their aesthetically-pleasing style of play under Vanhaezebrouck. They look to take the game to their opponents and open them up with speed and good combinations. Like their boss, they are not one for taking a backwards step which had long been the missing link for previous Gent teams which failed to bring home the big prize despite often playing ‘the best football’ to watch.
Hein Vanhaezebrouck has undoubtedly succeeded in shaping this Gent side in his own image – no superstars and no pretentions either but a steely and ambitious determination. Being cruel to be kind, he has created a better version of his Kortrijk teams who on a very limited budget were often able to overachieve, particularly in the cup. While Heintje has earned his shot at the Champions League, glitz and glamour do not sit well with the affable Flemish coach as was seen when the city of Gent erupted last May. His unrefined accent and his no-nonsense attitude make him one of the great characters of the coaching fraternity but one whom you would not begrudge success. The most impressive aspect of his spell at Gent (and it is worth noting the club had tried to get him before) is that he learned the lessons of his failed spell with Genk and was able to adapt to the greater scrutiny and expectation that comes with a ‘big five’ club. He has also been able to channel the growing support of the fans in the wonderful Ghelamco Arena where they lost just three times last season, crucially remaining unbeaten in the play-offs. Tactically astute and flexible, he will be relishing the chance to prove himself on the biggest stage in club football.
While I believe we should celebrate and embrace a new Belgian entrant into the Champions League, one cannot be swept up in the euphoria that saw 125,000 fans take to the streets in May. Gent have in some ways been giving the worst of both worlds – no glamour team and no obvious route to even the third spot. A win is imperative tonight given Lyon’s own struggles and the home crowd advantage in the first game. Sadly, I cannot see them finishing anywhere but bottom but with the ongoing turbulence engulfing Zenit, they should be able to acquit themselves well nonetheless.