Jupiler Pro League 2014/15 – Best of the rest
With the Pro League just days away now, we begin our series of previews by focusing on the sides who will likely be fighting it out towards the bottom of the table. With a bit of luck, some may be duking it out for a Playoffs 1 spot – such is the unpredictability of the Jupiler Pro League.
With Hein Vanhaezebrouck taking over the vacancy at Gent, Kortrijk could be forgiven for dipping down the table due to his exit. Yet, the club’s hierarchy have done the utmost to instil continuity, giving the reins to Yves Vanderhaeghe, the former No.2 who knows the club inside out though they were initially hesitant in appointing him.
Plenty of players, namely Mustapha Oussalah plus Benito Raman back on loan, have followed their boss back to Gent, yet the bulk of Kortrijk’s squad have remained. The only additions, as of the time of writing, are Serbian forward Adam Marusic and French defender Benoit Poulain from Nimes. Laurent Henkinet, who couldn’t force his way up the Standard pecking order, should provide adequate cover for Darren Keet in goal.
Kortrijk should be able to maintain at least their mid-table status, but it will be interesting to see how things develop under Vanderhaeghe – who is likely not to stray too far from last season’s formula with Ivan Santini and Stijn De Smet integral to the side’s attacking force. However, the new coach has been handed a tough start.
Most, if not all, last season wrote off the chances of this seaside club before a ball had even been kicked. Yet, KV Oostende were the surprise package of the Pro League in 2013/14, not only defying relegation but coming within an inch of European football (not holding a European license being the issue there) and taking Lokeren to penalties in the cup semi-final.
Thanks to the financial backing of Marc Coucke, De Kustboys have made a splash in the top-flight and will be hoping to consolidate their position this year. Anderlecht outcasts, midfielder Fernando Canesin and left-sided wing-back Jordan Lukaku, have been brought in on permanent deals after impressing on loan, while experienced heads in Carl Hoefkens and the controversial Bjorn Ruytinx have also joined the club. Add to that powerhouse Elimane Coulibaly up front and Costa Rican forward John Jairo Ruiz from Lille and it’s fair to say Coucke’s chequebook has been put to good use. With Coucke sponsoring LOSC, the loan deal for Ruiz could be the first in a long line of transfers from the French club, which will surely irk les Dogues’ satellite club RMP.
Second season syndrome is often bandied around with recently promoted clubs, but all the steps made on and off the field by KV Oostende hint that they could be hanging around for longer. If they replicate last season’s feats, then their campaign should be seen as a success.
Les Zèbres plodded along last season, never really at risk of facing the ignominy of relegation again or the club upheaval at the boardroom level that has dogged it for several years also. This is even more credible when you factor in that they lost their talisman David Pollet half-way through the season, as well as Onur Kaya and Danijel Milicevic and they could have easily stuttered. A strong Playoffs 2 performance under the tutelage of Felice Mazzu would have given them new confidence that they can at least beat teams around them.
It’s been a quieter summer for the Walloon club but they have bolstered a fairly weak attack. Kalifa Coulibaly joins from PSG’s reserves, a link up that served Charleroi fairly well in the past, as does winger Lynel Kitambala, who has been passed around on loan from Saint-Etienne in recent years. The only departure to date is Ederson, a useful midfielder for the club at times while Neeskens Kebano will be looking to continue his development in Hainaut.
Veteran forward Cédric Fauré will hope he has one final flourish in his goalscoring boots but with more depth than last year, Mazzu will go along way to further cementing his reputation as a coach to watch should he lead Charleroi, with their now more appropriately sized stadium, to another season of mid-table stability.
Another club who endured a sleeper of a season last year. Cercle weren’t fighting for their lives nor were they dicing up the sharp end of the table – just mid-table obscurity, which surely came as a relief to the Groen-Zwart supporters after their top flight status was in serious doubt the season before. Former Belgian international stalwart Lorenzo Staelens oversaw a transition last season with many youngsters been given their first real taste of top-flight football, which should put them in good stead this year.
That being said, there’s really nothing exciting in this squad to suggest they can mount anything more than they did last season, which is no surprise for a small side who live in the shadow of fellow Jan-Breydel dwellers Club. Staelens will be scrambling round to find new players before the window closes but they could easily be dragged until relegation if things don’t change. Goals were a problem for Cercle last season – just 29 in the regular season – a problem which they don’t look to have solved. Michael Uchebo may have graced the World Cup but his meagre return over two seasons meant the club refused to take up the option of another year and he has moved on. On an even more positive note, there is more to come from Joey Godee and Richard Sukuta-Pasu who needs to find the goals to match his physique – goals that often eluded him in his native Germany. One problem could be their difficult start and should they find themselves rock bottom, Staelens will have to earn his corn to stave off Play-Off 3.
Lierse continue to hold aspirations above their station, yet a disappointing 12th place last season must be cause for concern. Their academy has long been held in good regard, and this might be the year where we start to see that talent come to fruition, especially with many names leaving the club in the summer. Maged Samy has also sanctioned a fair few deals, including the return of injury-prone former Club Brugge man Dorge Kouemaha to Belgium and although the club’s debts are over £30m, there are no worries surrounding the club’s financial viability in the short term.
Their most interesting purchase however is the signing of Apostolos Vellios from Everton, with technical director Tomasz Radzinski’s connections proving valuable. The Greek striker made a big impression a few years ago before retreating back to the reserves and staying there for the duration of his time at Goodison Park. There’s clearly a good player in Vellios but whether Lierse are able to unlock his talent is another issue. With Dolly Menga returning from injury, the loss of goals from Tony Watt and Mbaye Diagne may not be as hard felt as it could have. On occasion, we should see entertaining stuff from Lierse, just expect a few destabilising hammerings along the way.
Undoubtedly the biggest underperformers in 2013/14, Mechelen will be looking to return to form this season and to forget entirely about the last twelve months, almost unthinkably falling out of the top-flight. Harm Van Veldhoven’s Mechelen were in a stupor, Franky Vercauteren’s attempt to revitalise them failed, now it’s the turn Aleksandar Jankovic to find the answer. Mechelen are the sixth best supported team in the league and at the very least, should be aiming for a top-half finish.
The Scandinavian experiment has been ended, with Mads Junker, Viktor Prodell and Thomas Enevoldesen all departing the club. In their place come Ibrahima Cisse from Standard, a good defensive pick-up in midfield with considerable potential, the experienced Tim Matthys from relegated Mons and everyone’s favourite gangly Serbian Dalibor Veselinovic. The ex-Anderlecht man is glad to have found some stability but will be fighting it out with Jason Adesanya for the lone striking role. Will these buys propel Mechelen up the table? Probably not but none are too shabby. Jankovic’s first task is to unlock the potential out of what he already has, namely getting Benjamin Mokulu firing on all cylinders.
Keep an eye out for leftback Ivan Obradovic who is a class act and rewarded Malinwa for their decision to give him a chance but he is sure to have top teams in Belgium and beyond chasing his signature if he continues from where he left off last season.
Rather than bringing in a dozen new names into the club like last summer, Waasland-Beveren have been relatively quiet this time round, despite being involved in a relegation scrap for the most part of the 2013/14 campaign. Perhaps lessons about integrating everyone into a squad have been heeded?
The aim this season should be to avoid the drop once more, something that will be tough but is achievable. The arrivals of David Hubert from Gent (if he can replicate his form of three to four years ago) and Ibou from OH Leuven are more than helpful, solving problem areas in theory. The departures of Rami Gershon and Karim Belochine to Gent are big losses though at the back, neither of which have been filled.
The biggest change however is in the coaching department. Bob Peeters, who had just got things clicking at the club, has taken over the Charlton job, with former OH Leuven boss Ronny van Geneugden taking over. He’s got a task on his hands retaining their top-flight status and will have to make sure that the collective is strong in order to stay up. Expect a dogfight similar to last year.
Westerlo were able to avoid the long-winded second division promotion play offs winning the league outright. Jean Koffi arrived midseason from Boussu Dour and proved to be a successful acquisition, scoring 19 goals in the season – six of them after his move to Westerlo. And in a further bid to boost their survival hopes Westerlo have also brought in Nils Schouterden, Eupen’s 16 goal man last season. Along with Sherjill McDonald, Westerlo will be hopeful of scoring themselves safe next season but injuries and suspensions at the start of the season mean some key men will be missing
The goal for Westerlo must be to survive. Repeating the extraordinary feats of KV Oostende seem very unlikely, but the team from Het Kuipje will be buoyed by the weaker teams in the league and will be hopeful of remaining in the league come the end of the season. However, to stand the best chance of doing so, they need to strengthen their backline before the end of the transfer window.
Perhaps the most controversial entrant in the Pro League this year, the successor club to Excelsior Mouscron has succeeded in bringing top flight football back to Le Canonnier by operating as Lille’s satellite club. Even coach Rachid Chibab was sent the short distance over the border from the Ligue 1 powerhouse. However, they start as the favourites for relegation and due to their association with a foreign club, they are unlikely to win the hearts and minds of the local public even if attendances will increase due to the better standard of opponents.
The vast Lille contingent has been boosted by some players on loan from Club Brugge – goalkeeper Sven Dhoest, defender Birger Verstraete and forward Zinho Gano. However, Dhoest faces stiff competition from Perrick Cros who has joined from Sochaux and was highly rated in his homeland. Veteran leftback Pieter- Jan Monteyne adds some experience to a youthful outfit, who are expected to play 4-4-2. While on paper they look to be set for a struggle, they cannot be written off completely – just look at Charleroi under Yannick Ferrera two seasons ago who defied all logic to survive.