Champions League preview: PSV – Zulte Waregem

el ronzo champions league

Credit – El Ronzo

What better way to kick off the Benefoot season than with a clash between a Dutch and a Belgian club? Yeah, we know. The Belgian season has started already and the Johan Cruijff Schaal opened the Dutch season nicely, but this is a clash of another calibre. Where PSV was slightly disappointed with finishing second, Zulte-Waregem were the surprise package of the Jupiler Pro League last season. Both teams have undergone a lot of changes and with uncertainty surrounding both on their current shape and form, a result would be more than welcome. A preview of Tuesday’s game by Chris Mayer and Michiel Jongsma.


After 5 years of significant spending, managerial changes and a lack of youth coming through, PSV decided enough was enough. Seeing a more composed way of building work for rivals Ajax and Feyenoord with the former winning three consecutive titles and the latter gradually improving their squad through their youth academy and turning a nice profit on its products, PSV installed club legend and promising young manager Philip Cocu. With an incredible overhaul taking place this summer, one thing is for sure: Things have changed and homegrown youth will become a massive part of the first team plans.

Out of the eleven players that started most often last season, only four have remained at the club. Boy Waterman, Wilfred Bouma and Atiba Hutchinson left on a free, Mark van Bommel retired, Kevin Strootman, Dries Mertens and Jeremain Lens were sold for big fees. Apart from these seven, left back Erik Pieters was sold, bringing the amount of money that has come in from outgoing transfers to around 50 million euros. Instead of whopping his purse out and spending the money freely on new signings, technical director Marcel Brands was told to spend the money in a more economical way. It is exactly what he did and the focus now appears to be on youth, more than it ever was.

Boy Waterman was replaced by Jeroen Zoet (22), who after two years on loan at RKC was finally deemed good enough to try and hold down his place in goal for the PSV side. Jetro Willems (19) looks to be the only ‘old’ face in the backline from last season occupying the left back position. Jeffrey Bruma (22) was signed from Chelsea for a reported 3 million euros to shore up defense together with loan signing Karim Rekik (18) of Manchester City. Sergio Arias was brought in as right back from Sporting Lisbon together with midfielder Stijn Schaars (29). The couple was acquired for an astute 1.6 million euros, a whole other type of spending Eindhoven had gotten used to.

In attack, only Florian Jozefzoon (22) was added. The RKC forward cost a mere 400.000 euros and Philip Cocu will be mainly looking at PSV academy graduates Memphis Depay (19), Zakkaria Bakkali (17) and Jurgen Locadia (19) to form a freescoring attack together with Georginio Wijnaldum (22)  and ‘senior’ Tim Matavz (24). The midfield will be completely transformed in comparision to last season.

The earlier mentioned Stijn Schaars is likely to feature, next to Swedish midfielder Oskar Hiljemark (21) and former PSV player  Ji Sung Park is expected to sign on a free from QPR to fight for a place in the starting eleven with the two. Park ( 32) would be by far become the senior of the squad, as no other squad player is older than 29 and over half of the squad was born in the ’90s.

Ahead of the two, a lot is expected from Adam Maher. Arguably the biggest talent on the Dutch fields at the moment, Maher (19) was signed from AZ for 6.5 million euros and the versatile playmaker looks to have it all to become a star of the highest order. His vision, dribbling ability and technique are impeccable and if he can continue developing in the same way as he did for AZ and the Dutch national team over the course of last season, PSV will enjoy his company in intense but shortlived fashion.

Zulte Waregem

The pre-season form looks promising, but in the end, pre-season doesn’t count. PSV might be favourites, but games aren’t won on paper and it will be a test for the young team to see how they cope with the pressure. Cocu seems to be enjoying his first few weeks as a PSV manager, but to really hit the road running, getting past Zulte-Waregem is required.

For many of us, the off-season usually goes by like a flash. For Zulte Waregem, May must seem a long time ago. From taking Anderlecht to a final game decider for the Jupiler Pro League, the summer break has been less than kind to Francky Dury’s team.

The coach has spent over a decade, on and off, at Essevee and led a bunch of misfits and youngsters to within an inch of lifting the first league title in 2012/13. It wasn’t to be, but Zulte Waregem were certainly the surprise package of the season and, as such, have been earmarked for their success, with many prized assets poached.

The tireless and energetic enforcing midfielder Junior Malanda, who was linked with a move to England in January, unilaterally broke his contract to engineer a move to the Premier League, which has yet to materialise. The departure of Jonathan Delaplace, who was the steady head of the midfield unit last campaign, left on a free to Lille. The other key member of Essevee’s midfield, the creator Frank Berrier, has long made his intentions clear, stating during the playoff run-in that he wanted to pursue a new challenge. This didn’t go down well with the squad, particularly with striker Mbaye Leye, who issued an ultimatum to the board – either he goes or I do. Both still remain at the club.

It’s a wonder then that with all these off-field problems, Dury has managed to keep the same chemistry in the side. At least, that’s what the early signs are showing us. On the opening day of the season, Zulte Waregem beat Lierse 2-1, thanks to goals from a returning duo. Striker Habib Habibou has been welcomed back into the fold, after failing to secure a Championship move to Leeds, and scored the opener on Saturday. The star of the show, as was the case last season, was Thorgan Hazard, as his sweetly-struck free-kick settled the game. Loaned out again from Chelsea, the 20-year old winger is pivotal to Zulte Waregem’s domestic chances this year, if they are to replicate last season’s heroics.

Europe and PSV Eindhoven might well represent a welcome distraction, a chance for the club to celebrate all they have achieved in the past 12 months. The draw is a daunting one but, without wallowing too much in cliches, Essevee didn’t fear anyone last season away from home. The club picking up results at Anderlecht and Standard, instilling a level of confidence. In fact, they should relish the opportunity to test their mettle against one of the Eredivisie’s finest. Should Zulte Waregem manage to get a result over the border, they have a chance in the return leg.

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