JPL Preview: KAA Gent – Still a top club in the making
For quite a few seasons, KAA Gent were the model club of the Pro League. Consistent finishes in the top six, smart recruitment, good coaching, attacking football, financial prudence in paying off debt and a state-of-the-art stadium in the works all meant they were the envy of many of their rivals and on the way to fulfilling the potential of Flanders’ second city, which had long played second fiddle in footballing terms to Brugge.
Since Trond Sollied was sacked, Ivan De Witte and Michel Louwagie have been unable to identify the right man to cement De Buffalo’s among the elite, as Racing Genk have done in the last fifteen years. Bob Peeters was still shellshocked after his disastrous run at Cercle, Victor Fernández always looked like yesterday’s man and a fish out of water and Mircea Rednic’s brief tenure descended into farce. While this author remains an arch backer of Sollied, whose track record in Belgium this century is eclipsed by few, it could also be argued that the current problems date back to the end of his third tenure in charge.
Despite being a talented squad, many of the players have given the club plenty of headaches with their unprofessional attitude and inability or rather unwillingness to set an example to the younger players. Bernd Thijs, who has had to retire after succumbing once too often to injury, must have been tearing his hair out. If only those who followed him showed the same level of commitment to the cause. In the second half of last season, the players were openly briefing against Rednic and were remonstrating with each other during matches.
There are also question marks over the club’s transfer policy with a series of flops and Gunther Schepens’ work is worthy of close scrutiny. The man tasked with resurrecting De Buffalo’s is Hein Vanhaezebrouck who has left KV Kortrijk for bigger things for a second time. Vanhaezebrouck, who has swapped his trademark tracksuit for a sharp suit,had been under the impression he would succeed Bob Peeters but was not going to turn down the offer to move to the Ghelamco Arena. He didn’t last long at Racing Genk and acknowledged that his failure in Limburg was down to not dealing adequately with the media and being too analytical when speaking to his players, thus failing to inspire them.
Vanhaezebrouck is a most affable man who is liked across the game and he worked wonders on meagre resources, both financial and in terms of influence at Kortrijk. If he didn’t always get his way at De Kerels, Gent are only too well aware that having entrusted him with the formidable task of challenging the top sides, they need to back their man. Vanhaezebrouck has brought in a number of players he has worked with in the past such as experienced centreback Karim Belhocine, left wingback Mustapha Oussalah, midfielder Sven Kums to partner Hannes van der Bruggen and ex-Celtic defender Rami Gershon. The pocket rocket Benito Raman returns after a loan spell under Vanhezebrouck at Kortrijk.
Kums cost €1.5m and his move left a sour taste in the mouth of former Gent manager Francky Dury. That same sum was also paid for David Pollet ; both players swapping European football for Oost-Vlaanderen. Pollet was bought by Anderlecht to try and placate the supporters but he never had long enough to replicate his goalscoring exploits at Charleroi. In Gent he will rekindle his partnership with winger Danijel Milicevic. The former Lens striker will have to lead the line in tandem with Raman as Dane Niklas Pedersen is out for several months and the troublesome Habib Habibou (who boosted his stats with two cheap PO2 hat-tricks) is set to be shown the door after just six months. He could fetch €3m, which would come in handy despite the financial leeway the new stadium affords the club.
The masterplan is to implement one of the tactical systems in vogue at the World Cup, namely 3-5-2 but in an attacking, dominant style with Gent looking to take the game to their opponents. Matz Sels faces competition from the experienced Brian Vandenbussche but is an excellent young goalkeeper and was in fine form in the glamour friendly against Saint-Etienne. Christophe Lepoint has already praised the formation’s flexibility, which he hopes to profit from. However, there is fierce competition for places and the squad is reasonably well balanced beyond whichever starting eleven the coach opts for.
While a new broom is sweeping through the club, they could still get the jump on some of the big boys whose squads are still in a state of flux. Three successive games in August against Standard, Zulte Waregem and Racing Genk provide both the ideal opportunity to do so and an early test of the new side’s mettle. Recent disappointments will ensure no-one internally will be carried away but now is the time for the players and staff to give the wonderful stadium and ever-growing band of supporters the football and results they have been craving for despite the hiccups, KAA Gent retains the potential to be one of Belgium’s top clubs.