BeNeLook: KAA Gent’s hard-fought route to the Champions League

Belgian champions KAA Gent have been drawn in Group H of the UEFA Champions League alongside Zenit, Valencia and Olympique Lyonnais.

The long and winding road for KAA Gent

You probably never thought you would see the day when KAA Gent were the sole Belgian representative in the Champions League while the traditional big three of Anderlecht, Standard and Club Brugge had to settle for Europa League football. The club hierarchy envisaged an eventual maiden league championship but were not naïve about the obstacles that lay in their path.

Gent is the second city of Flanders. Flanders dominates the Belgian footballing landscape. Yet the largest city in the north is Antwerpen and its relationship with top-flight football has been precarious in recent years. Gent has long been in the shadow of its rival city Brugge, whose Club Brugge still attract supporters from the Gent catchment area. That left Brugge and Genk to take the fight to Anderlecht from the capital and a Standard side from Liège that has reemerged from the doldrums in the past decade (and often appears on the verge of returning).

When Ivan De Witte was elevated to the role of chairman in 1999, the club’s debts stood at a mouthwatering €23 million, larger than the club’s annual operating budget of the time. Just over fifteen years later, the club are in the black and can boast the best stadium in the country in the resplendid Ghelamco Arena. Where Belgium fades in comparison to Portugal in terms of capitalising on hosting the European Championships to upgrade stadia, Gent have been a trailblazer. The 20,000-capacity ground is a permanent monument to the decade (and longer) of hard graft and shrewd management of De Witte and the club’s general manager Michel Louwagie.

Both have extensive backgrounds outside of football, which not only makes them interesting characters to study but in my view stood them in good stead for the challenge of seeing Gent fulfil its footballing potential. De Witte is a qualified psychologist whose HR company has been enormously successful and Louwagie represented his country in swimming before moving into the administrative side of the sport. Both also knew the club from the inside before taking up their current posts and in tandem have formed a quite formidable team. De Witte has courted controversy with his extra-club activities – as president of the Pro League he was instrumental in bringing in the unpopular play-off system and he has called for a slimmed-down 14-team competition. However, he has been, and remains, the big beast Gent required at the helm.

On the field, the club had threatened to do what Genk had done in upsetting the traditional top two/three for a long time. This was brought about by a succession of good coaches including Georges Leekens (whose record with medium-sized clubs is pretty handy to be fair), Trond Sollied (who made Belgian football history by naming the first all-foreign eleven in 2000 and infamously walked out on the club twice) and Michel Preud’homme (who secured the club’s third Belgian Cup in 2010 and took De Buffalo’s to second spot). Louwagie and his scouts also proved extremely adroit at exploiting the foreign market in particular – the likes of Ole Martin Årst, Mbark Boussoufa and Bryan Ruiz were spectacular successes both from a sporting and financial point of view.

At various points over the past decade, Gent were the neutrals’ pick. They were the exciting, up-and-coming team who played fearless attacking football mixed with bite and bereft of any of the bitterness that comes with the rivalries between the big three. They could never quite bridge the gap – they could never quite maintain the consistency over nine months to lift that elusive title. Rightly accused of choking in the big games, the lack of a quality centre-forward was also often their undoing.

There have been mistakes along the way – growing pains some might say – a further reminder that the road to the top is but long and still laced with pitfalls. Victor Fernandez and Bob Peeters were wholly unsuited to the job and there were errors in the transfer market but Gent have got a lot more right than wrong. The club had courted Hein Vanhaezebrouck and not deterred by his abortive failure in Genk, swooped to bring him in from Kortrijk. Vanhaezebrouck’s team-first approach and his dismissive attitude of prima donna attitudes not only endeared him to the fans but helped bond an exciting group together that made up for any lack of star quality with the corresponding mental strength required to overhaul an exhausted Club Brugge in last season’s play-offs.

Matz Sels in goal has a chance of going to France next year as Belgium’s third-choice between the sticks and he has come on leaps and bounds since moving from Lierse. Vanhaezebrouck operates a three-man defence, which has been strengthened most notably with record signing Erik Johansson from Malmö. The colourful Swede takes no prisoners and cost the club around €2m. Captain Sven Kums is the heartbeat of the side in midfield and it is easy to see why Vanhaezebrouck reunited himself with the tactically astute 27-year-old, who carries out his coach’s wishes to the letter. In Brecht Dejaegere, Danijel Milicevic and Moses Simon they have exciting players who can unlock the door and assist Laurent Depoître who leads the line. Depoître embodies the coach’s team ethic in the mould of Olivier Girous and is both capable of scoring his fair share as he is of creating space and opportunities for others.

De Witte wanted Real Madrid in the draw and Louwagie wanted Barcelona – most dream of Messi coming to Gent as Pelé once did. It’s not often the two disagree and when they come out of the hat and when the iconic music rings around the Ghelamco Arena next month, no-one will begrudge the duo a glass of champagne or two.

Breaking the Molde

When Ron Jans was prematurely fired at Standard back in 2012, he was hoisted on the petard of his 4-3-3 system. Jans stuck to the system so often favoured in his native Netherlands, which along with a more patient style of build-up, was seen to be alien to the strengths of Standard of getting the ball forward and looking to dominate the opponent in their half with pace. Fast-forward three years and the same criticism has been levelled at current boss Slavo Muslin. In defence of the Serb, the format of the Belgian league affords (the big) teams more time to get up-to-speed, even if the tight turnaround between seasons almost makes this an inevitability. And while 4-4-2 can be effective if executed correctly, the blind faith of some fans in the system makes amusing reading for tactical gurus and long-suffering English fans alike.

However, new striker Ivan Santini has pleaded to be given more support up front in the shape of a second forward and the club should have done their homework when scouting the Croatian who was so successful at Kortrijk. Even if Muslin wants to play with a lone striker in the medium-long term, he can still work on that but use 4-4-2 in the short-term while the players adapt to his methods (their apparent lack of belief in him notwithstanding). When we have seen Santini partnered with Mohamed Yattara, there have been green shoots of a promising strike partnership. Muslin appears to have wilted and tonight, with Standard 2-0 down to Molde after the first leg in Norway, is going to give the fans and pundits what they want. It might just buy him more time than Jans received three years ago.

Update: Standard went out and Muslin paid with his job.

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