JPL Preview: Lokeren – Keeping the Crown Jewels
Lokeren have been a real success story in recent seasons having recovered from a flirtation with relegation. Since Peter Maes’ appointment, Sporting have gone from strength to strength with three finishes out of four in the top six and two cup wins against Kortrijk and Zulte Waregem. The Lokeren fans will soon be getting withdrawal symptoms if they don’t make it to Het/L’Atomium this spring.
Stability has been the watchword at the club this summer with comparatively few changes to the squad compared to some of their direct rivals. Henrique has come in at leftback and can surely only improve after a testing second half up against Andy Najar’s wizardry in the Super Cup. Otherwise, the team that starts the season in Westerlo will bear a great deal of resemblance to last season’s outfit.
However, this stability is far from assured as we approach the start of the league season. With the transfer window still open for another five weeks, the vultures are circling around some of the star players in Maes’ squad. The chief target is attacking midfielder Hans Vanaken, whose goals, assists and consistency saw him named as our #1 Revelation in Belgian football last season. Anderlecht and particularly Club Brugge would love to prise the former Lommel United man away but Belgium’s big spenders have been hit with a formidable roadblock in the shape of Lokeren’s octogenarian president Roger Lambrecht. He is so far refusing to budge and sell the most valuable player in the squad.
It’s a stance that has been met with derision from the big boys but has gone down a treat in the Waasland. The player himself is not opposed to staying put beyond the end of August but however much he is eventually sold for, be it this summer, in January or next summer, Lokeren are assured of a tidy profit on their €200,000 investment and may even have the luxury of not having to let him go to a domestic rival.
Hamdi Harbaoui was rewarded for several seasons of consistency by becoming the league’s leading goalscorer last season, just edging out Standard’s Michy Batshuayi. The 29-year-old Tunisian has done it at all levels in Belgium and no-one would begrudge him a big move. He is superb in the air as he showed again with his goal in the Supercup and has a good all-round game, being particularly adept at bringing his teammates into play. He is not yet sure where his future lies and his prolific strike rate and ability to lead the line would be tough to replace.
The third member of the sought-after triumvirate is defender Alexander Scholz, who like Harbaoui has scored a winning goal in a cup final for Lokeren. At times he has shown his versatility but it’s in the heart of the defence that the great Dane has proved his worth as one of the league’s top centrebacks whom little gets past. He too was one of our top Revelations and his ability on the ball accompanied with his defensive strength mean his set of qualities are as easy to find in the Pro League as a needle in a haystack. Standard’s interest looks to have dissipated for the moment while Anderlecht are looking to bring in Daniel van Buyten.
Sporting director Willy Reynders is currently looking to both anticipate the aforementioned departures and improve the squad’s depth with two centrebacks currently on trial and a move for Charleroi midfielder Evariste N’Golok in the pipeline. Gregory Mertens deputised for Scholz in the Supercup but is not the most fleet of foot. Koen Persoons and captain Killian Overmeire form a dependable duo in midfield and there are a range of options on the flanks. Nill de Pauw picked up an injury at the weekend racing back to stop Matias Suárez but will only miss around two weeks. Unfortunately, flyer Ayanda Patosi has sustained another setback on his road to recovery with another knee problem but thankfully this one is less serious and we hope to see the South Afrian back to his best in the coming campaign.
Lambrecht does not believe that a genuine powerhouse will ever emerge from the Waasland region and he is in all probability correct in that assessment. However, Lokeren are a club who have done a lot of things right in recent seasons and they have already made some shiny improvements to their Daknamstadion this summer. Their fans, who have lit up the cup final and were in fine voice in Brussels on Sunday, have had many reasons to cheer. With key players possibly on the way out and a tricky first six games, they now just need to hold their breath until September.