Cofidis Cup final preview: Cercle Brugge – Racing Genk

Last year’s cup final was seen by many to be a low key affair as it took place without one of the big five and was held in March, well in advance of the end of the season. This year’s is sandwiched in between two weekend rounds of league fixtures (PO1 in Genk’s case and the promotion play-offs in Cercle’s). It’s unusual for a cup final to take place on a Thursday although today is a public holiday in many countries in continental Europe.

It’s not surprising given the above that the Cofidis Cup continues to be seen as the poor relation to league football despite the unpopularity of the play-offs and it’s a trend that is not exclusive to Belgium. Nor is it to be welcomed because knockout football can provide us with some great moments. Royal Mouscon-Péruwelz came agonisingly close to famously knocking out Standard Liège in round six while Belgacom league champions KV Oostende took two Pro League scalps in the shape of OH Leuven and Waasland-Beveren. There was the incredible 5-5 between Westerlo and Sint-Truiden, following which De Kanarien progressed on penalties and Genk’s elimination of Anderlecht in the last four after the most dramatic of shoot-outs.

Genk go for glory

Racing Genk have contested on all three fronts this season and while their squad has at times come under strain, they find themselves in with a chance of doing the league and cup double with just ten days of the season remaining. Ever since they made the final back at the start of March, they have been billed as clear favourites but the game comes at an interesting point for Mario Been’s side. On Sunday evening, they host Anderlecht in the league in the knowledge that a victory would take them above the reigning champions. However, with the top five so tightly packed together, tonight’s cup final represents the quickest and most straightforward route to European football next season as well as the obvious lure of silverware.

Racing Genk's best player Jelle Vossen, who faces his former club tonight.

Racing Genk’s best player Jelle Vossen, who faces his former club tonight.

Genk have picked up their fair share of trophies over the last fifteen years, having won three league titles and three cups. They first won the cup in 1998 under Aimé Antheunis before Johan Boskamp guided them to glory two years later. Current assistant manager Pierre Denier was in charge for their most recent triumph in 2009 as the club waited for Hein Vanhaezebrouck to take over on a more permanent basis. Interestingly, Kevin De Bruyne and Jelle Vossen were unused substitutes.

As is often the case for sides whose resources are stretched thinly between several competitions, they often run the risk of ending up with nothing, which will increase the pressure on the overwhelming favourites. It appeared that Genk’s title charge had fizzled out as they struggled to find the net but that all changed last week with a 0-4 away win at Zulte Waregem. While they took advantage of some key absences and individual errors, they were a good deal more dangerous in general play than in previous weeks.

Goalkeeper Köteles László was a hero in the semi and has produced some of his best form in a Genk shirt. Thomas Buffel and Jelle Vossen face their former club while Benji De Ceulaer will have a score to settle. He was unjustly sent off in last year’s final against Kortrijk and though his Lokeren teammates won without him, it was still a bitter pill to swallow on what should have been the finest moment of his career. With over 30,000 fans set to pass through the turnstiles of the national stadium, Genk won’t want to disappoint.

Staelens oversees turnaround at Cercle

It wasn’t that long ago that Cercle Brugge were doomed to bowing out of the Pro league with a whimper, unable to buy a win and seemingly irreversibly bereft of confidence. Eidur Gudjohnsen, who scored this wonder goal in the earlier rounds, joined the Club Brugge side that strike knocked out of the cup in the January transfer window. With their one genuine top performer away, the squad lacked the kind of talismanic figure who could perform minor miracles.

Foeke Booy had replaced the hapless Bob Peeters in those dark autumn months and failed to arrest a slide, that arguably begun when Cercle were pipped to the PO1 post at the end of last season. Ironically, it was tonight’s opponents in Genk who managed to sneak that final spot, helping to secure Mario Been’s future in Limburg. Booy, who turned out for Club Brugge during his career, adopted a very attacking 4-2-4 system and decided that Cercle weren’t going to die wondering. However optimistic and exciting this sounded in theory, it did not come to fruition out on the pitch and Cercle remained rooted to the bottom of the table.

Cercle Brugge coach Lorenzo Staelens, who will stay on next season.

Cercle Brugge coach Lorenzo Staelens, who will stay on next season.

Cercle’s assistant Lorenzo Staelens, who had made no secret of his ambition to return to management one day, had declined the top job earlier in the season but he stepped into the breach when Booy was let go last month. Although the ex-FC Utrecht boss had guided Groen-Zwart to the cup final, clearly the main priority was to preserve their Pro League status. Staelens is a physically imposing figure and he was a stalwart of Belgian football throughout the 1990s, converting from a midfielder to a centreback in his latter years. He infamously refused to speak to the press when as the runaway favourite, he was passed over for the Golden Shoe in 1994 (Gilles De Bilde won) and was involved in the incident that saw Patrick Kluivert sent off for Oranje against Belgium in World Cup 1998.

Staelens has opted for a more pragmatic tactical approach and breathed life into Cercle’s season. They overcame Beerschot in PO3 with one game to spare (justice being done given the precarious state of Beerschot’s finances) and began the D2 play-offs with a thumping 0-3 win away to RMP. Tim Smolders scored twice and after a difficult first season since moving from Gent, the experienced midfielder will be relishing the chance to turn out in tonight’s cup final. Cercle have won the cup twice before – in 1927 and 1985 and lost the 2010 final to KAA Gent. Staelens has been honest enough to admit that while they earned their place in the final after a dramatic winner from Michael Uchebo in the last minute of extra time to break Kortrijk’s hearts, the cup final is a bonus and a temporary distraction from their battle to stay in the Pro League.

It’s not the ideal scenario for those, who want to see the cup afforded more attention and prestige but there’s little doubt it’s Genk who have much more to lose in the event of a negative result tonight. However, either result still leaves open the intriguing possibility of Cercle playing in Europe while in the second division.

Team News

Racing Genk (4-4-1-1): Köteles ; Anele, Koulibaly, Simaeys, Tshimanga ; Buffel, Hyland, Kumordzi, Joseph-Monrose ; De Ceulaer ; Vossen. Substitutes: van Hout, Kara, Ojo, Gorius, Hamalainen, Plet, Barda.

Cercle Brugge (4-3-3): Verbist ; Boi, Wils, Mertens, Cornelis ; Vidarsson, Smolders, Carvalho ; *Rudy, Uchebo, D’Haene. Substitutes: Coppens, Bakenga, Boghossian, Dickoh, van Eenoo, van Roose.

*Evens has injured himself in the warm-up.

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