BeNeLook: Where do Standard go from here?/Batshuayi blossoming
Nine games. That’s all Slavoljub Muslin had to prove his worth as Standard manager. He said he couldn’t understand his sacking but the veteran Serb will be thankful that he won’t be tainted by the abominable display les Rouches put in as they capitulated to rivals Club Brugge in a 7-1 defeat. Muslin’s appointment was one of the last vestiges of the ancien régime run by the despised figure of Roland Duchâtelet.
Muslin was not necessarily on borrowed time from day one even if there was the spectre of being Duchâtelet’s man. However, his preference for 4-3-3 quickly raised eyebrows around Sclessin as it was felt that not only was 4-4-2 more akin to the club’s traditions but was also more suited to the players at the coach’s disposal. The opening weekend defeat to Kortrijk already brought early warning signs – it was hard not to notice the irony of losing to a team whose star striker you had just purchased for €1.6m. Ivan Santini was soon complaining to the press that he was isolated up front and called for more support in the shape of Mohamed Yattara, signed from Lyon for around €2m.
The rumblings of discontent increased following a 2-0 Europa League defeat to Molde, a side well off the pace even for a European spot in Norway. Failure to beat Royal Mouscron-Péruwelz, in disarray at the start of the season and universally tipped for relegation as well as a home defeat to in-form KV Oostende compounded matters. The final straw ironically came after the best performance this season – a 3-1 win over Molde at Sclessin (he caved in to pressure and played 4-4-2) was ultimately not enough to secure a place in the group stages. With Muslin also having the lost the dressing room and only belatedly heeding warnings from his superiors, the axe fell.
Managerial stability is often desirable and can pay dividends as Peter Maes proved at Lokeren but equally when it becomes abundantly clear that the incumbent is not cut out for the job, a quick execution is better for all parties. Muslin never looked cut out for the job. He appeared indecisive and the on-field performances never gave even the slightest indication that the players believed in their manager.
In spite of a starting eleven that looked well-balanced on paper, Standard then sunk to new depths in Brugge. So high was the defensive line confonted with a speedy Club attack that it resembled the Charge of the Light Brigade without the bravery associated with the foolishness. Victor Vázquez was able to pick the defence off at will but the complete absence of organisation and leadership meant the same errors were repeated. Worse still, there was no semblance of a response – just as the intensity looked to have fizzled out of the game, Club refound their verve and Standard caved in. This is not to denigrate a fine attacking display from Michel Preud’homme’s side but the manner in which their opponents played would disgrace even the top sides in the Proximus League. No wonder then that the supporters waited at the club’s academy to ‘welcome’ the players back to Liège, with some even being invited inside to vent their spleen.
Goodness knows where Standard go from here but Muslin is not the quickest example of a firing. In 2006, the larger-than-life Dutchman Johan Boskamp was sent packing after a mere six games. His record (and his French!) was a lot worse – two points from four in the league and Champions League qualifier elimination against Steaua. When the 25-year championship drought ended under Boskamp’s successor Michel Preud’homme, he then walked out and joined KAA Gent.
Since then, only Bölöni László has fully looked the part in my view. He helped the club retain the title in the most dramatic of circumstances following a two-legged play-off with Anderlecht but his fiery temper and that of many of his superstar players proved too explosive a cocktail to contain within the walls of Sclessin. The Magyar coach who has a proven track record with youth is open to a return. Ron Jans was a beaten man before he began – wrongly in my view as look at his work elsewhere – and Ivan Vukomanovic was another pawn in Duchâtelet’s empire. One man who has had two spells post-Bölöni is José Riga – a thoroughly pleasant man whose best work is beneath first-team level and let’s be blunt about it – nice guys won’t succeed in the red furnace of Liège. There are unique pressures and emotions run particularly high (especially when Guy Luzon was at the helm!) and any prospective manager will need a very thick skin built by having extinguished his own managerial fires.
At least 30 managers have made their interest known to Venanzi. The romantic choice would be Sergio Conceição who won the Gouden Schoen/Soulier d’Or during his three seasons in Liège and has also been assistant manager at the club. He is available having been fired by Braga at the end of last season but has strong links to former owner Luciano D’Onofrio. There are plenty of suitors in the domestic game. Francky Dury has a long contract at Zulte Waregem and may be reluctant to leave mid-season but the outstanding job he has done with relatively meagre resources demands respect and a top job. Felice Mazzu has just seen the core of his Charleroi team ripped out but taking les Zèbres into PO1 last year was an extraordinary achievement.
The favourite, however, looks to be Sint-Truiden boss Yannick Ferrera. Still the youngest coach in the top flight at 34, he has a burgeoning reputation. When he took over at Charleroi, seldom if ever has a team ever looked more ripe for relegation. He defied the odds to lead them to safety before walking out in dissatisfaction at the haphazard and incompetent manner in which the club was run. After falling at the play-off hurdle first time around, Ferrera led De Kanaries to the title and automatic promotion. The manner in which his new-look squad has hit the ground running this season playing fearless and attractive football (if sometimes naïvely over-aggressive to Ferrera’s consternation) is further evidence that a big job is inevitable.
Ideally, he would stay another year at STVV, a club who have got things right off the field but his contract is structured so as not to stand in the way should a major club come calling. Boskamp counselled Peter Maes to reject Standard but with Duchâtelet gone, Ferrera would have the chance to be Venanzi’s first chosen one and could set the tone for a new era. He will have to start by picking up the pieces from Sunday’s nadir in Brugge.
One of Standard’s former stars, Michy Batshuayi is happily a long way from the chaos, not that things have been exactly tranquil at Olympique de Marseille this season. Marcelo Bielsa proved again his ability to wear the Emperor’s New Clothes and left the club in the lurch. Batshuayi’s slow start to the season was understandable. Now the undisputed first-choice after Andre-Pièrre Gignac’s move to Mexico, he bounced back with a brace against Troyes.
Watching him last Friday night against Guingamp, he was comfortably the best player for OM. In spite of inadequate support from his supporting cast, he was dangerous throughout and represented his side’s best chance of a goal. His movement was excellent and he injected urgency and pace into an otherwise moribund Marseille side. It’s just as well he is able to fashion chances for himself with his good close control, his ability to move into space where he can use his lightning pace to good effect. But for a fine stop from home goalkeeper Jonas Lössl, he would have scored a fantastic goal having picked the ball up just outside the box and beaten three men. Batshuayi also showed evidence of his dead-ball prowess.
It is no surprise that France Football have identified him as someone who could contend for the title of Ligue 1’s meilleur buteur and Jonathan Johnson, writing for Four Four Two, also believes this will be his year. Last campaign, as second choice, he had an excellent goals-to-minutes ratio and as stated above, will have ample opportunity to hit double figures this time around. With Christian Benteke reportedly out for Belgium’s upcoming games against Bosnia-Herzegovina and Cyprus and Romelu Lukaku’s well-publicised shortcomings, Wilmots would be well-advised to call on Batshuayi at some point over the next week.