JPL Preview: Club Brugge – no more excuses now

13 May 2012 will surely go down as one of the most remarkable and surreal dates in Belgian football. A country was stunned when Georges Leekens stepped down as Belgium boss and announced he was rejoining Club Brugge.  The nomadic coach then poured fuel on the fire by claiming that 90% of his work as Rode Duivels boss had been done, a highly contestable statement to say the least. It was supposed to be Christoph Daum’s farewell against KV Kortrijk.  The German, whose sojourn in Brugge was far too brief, seemed taken back by events, having to ask Vincent Mannaert if the news was true upon being confronted by a television reporter.

It’s a great shame that Daum felt unable to continue due to his wish to return to his family in Köln. He’d had enough of the six-hour round-trip he would make on a regular basis. However, it was not a total surprise as Daum, for all his reputation may have been tainted, is not the calibre of coach one would normally expect to find in the Pro League. We were fortunate to gain an insight into his work, adding steel and organisation to a Club Brugge side, too naively coached by Adrie Koster. There’s a very credible school of thought that says had Daum been enlisted earlier, they may even have pipped a stumbling Anderlecht to the post.

Leekens arrives with a great deal of goodwill from his own fans, which is more than can be said of the wider footballing public in Belgium.  Mack the Knife arrived back at the Jan Breydelstadion to the warmest of welcomes from those who had gathered to greet him. He claimed it was never about the money and that he was coming home to Club Brugge. Leekens seems to be at home everywhere but in fairness he spent nine years as a player at Club Brugge. He also won his only league title in 28 years of coaching in 1990 there but for most of his career, he has been with second-tier clubs, preferring not to work with superstars. It was never more evident though than during his spells as Belgium coach when he systematically failed to strike up a harmonious working relationship, first with Enzo Scifo and latterly with Eden Hazard.

Chairman Bart Verhaeghe has been willing to support the club once more this summer though crucially, no first-choice players have followed Nabil Dirar out the door. Ryan Donk remains arguably the best centre-half in the Pro League and will be partnered by Jim Larsen. The former Rosenborg captain is poised to succeed where Michael Almebäck and Jordi Figuerias failed, at least last season. Left-back has been another problem area for Club, not helped by a succession of injuries to the perennially unfortunate Fredrik Stenman. Bart Buysse arrives back at the club where he spent his formative years, having himself spent a fair bit of time on FC Twente’s treatment table.

There is some fierce competition further forward as well. Vadis Odidja-Ofoe is the king of the midfield and may find himself playing as the most advanced of the trio to accommodate Danish pair Niki Zimling (who performed very creditably in Euro 2012) and Jesper Jørgensen. The latter, signed from rivals KAA Gent for €1.5million, is a curious case. Before he arrived in Belgium, he was never a goalscoring midfielder for Esbjerg or even in his first half-season for Gent. Yet he managed double figures as he flourished under the guidance of Trond Sollied. It was Zimling who convinced Jørgensen to make the controversial move and the two will hope to rekindle their midfield partnership from their Esbjerg days.  This could put Leekens on a collision course with ex-Barcelona man Victor Vázquez.

Björn Vleminckx had come back to his native Belgium last season after scoring over 20 goals for NEC in the Eredivisie. Costing a hefty €3million, a lot was expected though wise observers pointed out that defences north of the border are more open.  He failed to hit it off with Joseph Akpala enjoying a renaissance. Nevertheless, Carlos Bacca joined in the winter and was talked up by the club. Following a slow and eventful start, he received support from Club’s strikers coach Kenneth Brylle and notched up his maiden league goal in April. Throw in Meme Tchité, albeit a player whom I feel operates better in a 4-4-2 and promising Norwegian Mukasha Bakenga.

There is strength on the flanks as well. Christoph Daum may not have hung around long enough to see the eventual Dirar replacement but Macedonian Ivan Trickovski looks a steal at around €1million, give or take. He was twice voted the best player in Cyprus, was chosen as the best player in Macedonia and impressed as APOEL Nicosia incredibly reached the last eight of the Champions League.  His best position is as a second striker but he will be required to play most probably on the right, with the ever-improving Lior Refaelov a class act on the left.

Club Brugge will not win any popularity contests other than those conducted by their own fans. They have alienated a lot of people in their quest to wrestle the title away from their rivals. It’s also to be hoped (against hope) that Belgian youngsters such as Maxime Lestienne and Thomas Meunier (who has shown he can mix it with any of the more high-profile buys) do not see their development stunted as both have a lot to offer. Leekens has a tough task finding the right combination and many will doubt his ability to do so, especially given that he could have done more with the Rode Duivels/Diables Rouges.  It must not be forgotten, however, that they ran Anderlecht fairly close and their individual quality will count for a lot. There’s no more pulling the wool over our eyes with talk of the top three. Club Brugge have put a lot of noses out of joint. Now they must show it was worth it.

Last season: 2nd place (2nd in PO1)
Head coach: Georges Leekens
Star player: Vadis Odjidja-Ofoe
Title odds: 8/5
Prediction: 2nd

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