Benefoot’s Jupiler Pro League Season Preview 2015-16
With the dust just about settled after dramatic 2014/15 campaign, the Belgian Pro League is back on Friday night with Sint Truiden taking on Club Brugge in the season opener. Plenty of big names have moved on, but as many as looking to step up in one of Europe’s best proving grounds. Here’s a brief look at the runners and riders for 2015/16:
(last season finish in brackets)
Gent (1st in PO1)
The unlikely champions of 2014/15, securing the first league title of their long history, look in decent shape for another title tilt. The bulk of the squad that Hein Vanhaezebrouck put together has remained, with a few fringe players moving on. Thomas Matton, a favourite of the coach’s at Kortrijk, and Erik Johansson (Malmo) are the main additions, while Kalifa Coulibaly from Charleroi could be a good piece of business. It may have been a shock that Gent were the eventual winners last season so early into the manager’s reign, but there’s no real reason why they shouldn’t be in contention this time round. The Champions League windfall is helpful, but it could prove a distraction for a tight-knit squad in the early going.
Club Brugge (2nd in PO1)
Despite claiming cup glory, Club Brugge’s season ultimately ended in disappointment, falling short in the league title race. A lengthy Europa League run also proved problematic and the team ran out of steam in the playoffs. Mat Ryan, the best keeper in Belgium for at least two years, has joined Valencia and will be a difficult person to replace. They have replaced one Aussie import with another – Bernie Ibini-Isei impressed at Sydney FC last season. Their main splurge this summer is Hans Vanaken of Lokeren, who has the technique to be a star, but aside from him, there will be little change you’d expect to the continental cast of talented players. Michel Preud’homme continues to place faith in the youth system and it will be interesting to see how he rotates players. After a decade of near misses and no championships, the pressure really is on the manager this campaign with a expectant board and crowd.
Anderlecht (3rd in PO1)
Another side who have to deal with a huge loss are Anderlecht, with Serbian striker Aleksandar Mitrovic joining Newcastle just this week. Having been the league’s top goalscorer over the last two seasons, Sporting need to find someone with shooting boots. That man appears to be former Standard forward Imoh Ezekiel, who’s been given the highly-sought-after No.93 shirt, joining on loan. The addition of Ivan Obradovic from Mechelen is a shrewd one, given he was one of the best full-backs in Belgium last season, but other than that, no financial muscles have been flexed in Brussels (yet). Should Anderlecht be genuine title contenders, they’ll have to rely on the continued promise of Dennis Praet (assuming he stays) and Youri Tielemans (assuming he stays) and the experienced heads of Silvio Proto and Steven Defour. Another one to watch is Honduran Andy Najar, who really came into his stride in 2014/15.
Standard Liège (4th in PO1)
It wouldn’t be summer without a power shift in Liège. Much to the fans delight, Roland Duchâtelet has stepped aside as has José Riga for the second time, opting not to continue his brief contract at the club. The new man in charge is journeyman Slavoljub Muslin, who previously managed Lokeren in the mid-2000s, to little acclaim. The revolving door at Standard hasn’t stopped with staff either. Eiji Kawashima, Mehdi Carcela, Paul-Jose M’poku, Yoni Buyens and Frédéric Bulot have all gone (some via loans anyway), but some fairly astute purchases have been made. Ivan Santini has proven at Kortrijk how much of a handful he can be, while Anthony Knockaert is looking for a fresh start after Leicester. They’ll be in PO1 but probably not a title contender. They’ll need to gel quickly to avoid doubt creeping in.
Charleroi (5th in PO1)
One of last season’s surprise packages, Charleroi supporters finally had a team worth cheering about, with the exceptional Felice Mazzu instilling new confidence throughout the club. The loss of Kalifa Coulibaly is a big one, but David Pollet has shown before at the club how valuable a goalscorer he can be, plus Neeskens Kebano can weigh in with goals. The fact that, at the time of writing, Charleroi are more or less the same as they were last season means they should go well. However, maintaining pace at the top end of the table, especially with plenty of clubs with PO1 aspirations, plus a potential European campaign to navigate. Their performances in qualifying have been extremely impressive.
Kortrijk (6th in PO1)
Another perennial overachiever inspite of managerial changes are Kortrijk. Yet again, they’ve to contend with their manager departing – Yves Vanderhaeghe has gone to Oostende, causing a bit of a stir on the way. Johan Walem is now in the hot seat, stepping down from the U-21 job for his first senior club role, which in itself is a gamble. With Santini now at Standard, the goals could well dry up. Kortrijk have a habit of punching above their weight, but this season could be a bridge too far for even them.
Genk (7th in regular season)
As Racing Genk missed out narrowly on PO1 last time, Alex McLeish’s days at the club were numbered. Perhaps unsurprisingly given his history, the Scot sucked the life out Racing last season making them a dreary outfit to watch, capable of 1-0 wins but not much more than that. Peter Maes was the board’s overwhelming choice to revitalise the club, having worked miracles at Lokeren, and his first task is to find a natural goalscorer. Igor De Camargo could be that man in his second spell at the club, but his best days seem behind him. An overhaul of the squad would be useful, but Maes may be keen to give misfits a chance first before bringing his own players in. There’s still enough quality there for a PO1 charge, thanks to the likes of Kara Mbodj, the arrival of Yoni Buyens plus youngsters like Siebe Schrijvers. Playing freely under Maes should see an improvement in all departments.
Lokeren (8th in regular season)
Former Charlton boss and Belgian Total Wipeout presenter Bob Peeters is the new coach at Lokeren and a season of mediocrity would be more than acceptable with a big regime change. They also have to deal with the departure of Vanaken, plus Nill de Pauw who has been a mainstay at the club for some seasons, who joined Guingamp. The club have a habit of buying fairly obscure players from across Europe and finding a winner or two, so you never know, but a season of transition is expected.
Mechelen (9th in regular season, PO2 winners)
The team that actually gave PO2 a go last season Mechelen look fairly similar to how they lined up last campaign, minus Obradovic, which is a big loss. They’ve added two goalkeepers, the hugely experienced Jean-Francois Gillet and Colin Coosemans from Waasland-Beveren, who’s only 22 but has played plenty of top-flight games in Belgium. The duo should provide competition for each other throughout the season, with Coosemans getting the nod in the end. An contender for one of the PO1 spots, and will hope that their underachieving nature doesn’t strike again.
Oostende (10th in regular season)
The ambitious club from the coast had a fairly solid campaign last time round, but chairman Marc Coucke will be keen to improve upon this, as he wants KVO to establish themselves as a top-flight regular. As such, Frederik Vanderbiest parted company with the club, with the perception that he had taken Oostende as far as he could, and was replaced by Kortrijk’s Yves Vanderhaeghe, who had excelled in his debut season at KVK. Like seasons previous, Oostende have taken a mix of established players, like Brecht Capon and Wouter Biebauw, plus a couple of gambles. Gohi Bi Cyriac, if fit (which is a big if) could bang in a few goals, while Joseph Akpala returns to the Pro League after a three year absence. Should he replicate his run at Club Brugge, Oostende could surprise a few this season.
Westerlo (11th in regular season)
Westerlo were an odd side last season. A decent start on their return to the Pro League was followed by a couple of dire runs, punctuated with priceless victories against sides around them. While never really at the mercy of the trap door, their defensive frailties were exposed, shipping 63 goals in total – as many as relegated Lierse. To alleviate that problem, they’ve signed a 7ft goalkeeper in Kristof Van Hout as a solution which may look good on paper, but not in practice. Veteran Filip Daems provides experience, while Genk duo Khaleem Hyland and Benjamin de Ceulaer have a point to prove. Harm van Veldhoven has a task ahead of him, but there’s enough there to be safe.
Zulte Waregem (12th in regular season)
The bubble burst on Zulte Waregem last season, falling from their usual PO1 position to mid-table obscurity. Francky Dury struggled to get the most out of his side, without the brilliance of Thorgan Hazard to guide them, and the team didn’t seem to gel as well as in previous campaigns. Given his contribution to the club over the last decade or so, he’s not under so much pressure but is expected to get the club back up the order. Summer signings are on a shoestring as usual, bringing Cercle Brugge’s Stephen Buyl (one of few who impressed for them), Steve De Ridder and Christophe Lepoint onboard. Also returning is fan favourite Mbaye Leye, hoping to rediscover his better days after injury. It would be a surprise if they were pulling up trees come March, but Dury will hope last year was just a blip and nothing more. PO1 is a possibility.
Mouscron-Péruwelz (13th in regular season)
After squabbles over their place in the top-flight with other clubs, Mouscron can now focus on on-field matters, with question marks regarding finances looming still. With most of their good players moving on or returning from on loan, Mouscron look doomed, with signings mostly coming from the second tier. Cedomir Janevski, previously at another doomed club Mons, is the Grim Reaper twice over. The fact that there is only one side to be relegated this season, with Playoff 3 scrapped for the time being, doesn’t help their case either.
Waasland-Beveren (14th in regular season)
Surviving by the skin of their teeth, or the ineptness of others depending on your view, Waasland-Beveren remain in the Pro League for the fourth successive season. Guido Brepoels has gone after just about achieveing the bare minimum, and former Dessel coach Stijn Vreven is in charge. At just 42, he’s one of the youngest managers in the division and that could be to his disadvantage. W-B have once again chopped and changed, with the most notable additions at Freethiel being David Destorme from Mechelen, Steeven Langil from Mouscron and Club Brugge’s Zinho Gano, who is highly rated but an extremely raw talent, which could apply to a few in the squad. They’ll be scrapping once again for sure.
Sint-Truiden (1st in 2nd tier)
The champions in Division Two buoyed by title success will be eager to prove they can mix it with the best Belgium has to offer. The Canaries lost just three times on their way to lifting the trophy, and were ultimately the best team in the latter stages of the competition, being beaten just once in the final 24 games, showing their resilience as a unit. That should put them in decent stead but the gap between the two divisions is hard to scale. The arrivals of Yuji Ono and Yannis Mbombo, should in theory give them some firepower.
OH Leuven (5th in 2nd tier, promotion playoff winners)
After a short absence OH Leuven return to the top flight, having just about recovered from the shock of going down in the first place in 2013-14. Logan Bailly’s move to Celtic to play back-up has left them in the lurch though, and they desperately need a goalkeeper. The good news is that Jordan Remacle returns to the club where he first made his name. Former Spurs prodigy John Bostock has enjoyed a renaissance of sorts at OHL and could well make a good impression in Belgium’s top division.
Who do you think will win the league this season? Who are the title contenders and who’s destined for the drop? Tell us below…