JPL Preview: Racing Genk – A hard road back

One of the strangest moments of last season was when Genk coach Mario Been was relieved of his duties. It wasn’t that the Dutchman’s sacking was without reason. He had lost his last five home games and despite another good European campaign, was ultimately failing to allow the side to reach its potential both in terms of their performances and results. At the end of his farewell press conference, CEO Dirk Degraen instructed the amassed journalists to give his slain coach a round of applause. For the players to do so is understandable but for journalists to be asked is less so and even Been looked rather bemused during what was a surreal moment.

The Mario Been era is over and the youngsters need to kick on this term.

The Mario Been era is over and the youngsters need to kick on this term.

Mario Been did do a lot of good work in Limburg – he won the club’s fourth cup, took them into the New Year in Europe for the first time in Genk’s history and led them to a third-placed finish last season having survived a brush with sliding out of the top six, which would have seen his tenure cut short much earlier. His successor Emilio Ferrera ensured qualification for PO1 but little else as they stumbled towards the end of the season.

Ferrera is from a footballing family and has had a nomadic managerial career but is highly regarded as a strong tactician. Despite being a relatively young boss at 47, he has almost 25 years of coaching experience. While some critics labelled him the cheap option in the wake of Been’s mid-season departure, this is an opportunity for Ferrera to put down some roots having been shown the door at Lokeren despite keeping them up and at Club Brugge after qualifying them for Europe.

Much debate this summer has centred around the future of long-serving striker and captain Jelle Vossen. Revered by the Genk fans, his prolonged stay with the club is reminiscent of Lucas Biglia at Anderlecht. A member of the 2011 title-winning team, he has seen Thibaut Courtois, Kevin De Bruyne and Chris Mavinga go abroad but is also wary that making the wrong choice can lead to a career going down the pan, as has been the case with Marvin Ogunjimi. More recently, Christian Benteke has had a stunning impact in the Premier League with Aston Villa.

Vossen feels it is now time to put himself first having given superb service to Racing. Genk understand the player’s desire to further himself abroad and are willing to move him on, just not at what they deem to be a knockdown price, although the club are under no financial pressure. His departure would signal the end of an era and it’s clear that Ferrera has a lot of work to do in order to return Genk to being a serious contender for the title once more. Genk most certainly are in a period of transition.

Middlesbrough fans have been given fresh hope that Genk will #freejellevossen

Middlesbrough fans have been given fresh hope that Genk will #freejellevossen

That transition will have to take the form of blooding and bringing on many younger players. Vossen’s inevitable departure will mean that his fellow Belgian international striker Ilombé Mboyo will have to do a lot more to justify his €4.5m transfer fee after a disappointing return of five league goals last term. Question marks over his temperament must be resolved if he is to set a good example for Siebe Schrijvers who has long been seen as a major prospect and the time is now ripe for him to become a first-team regular. Luka Zarandia and Sergej Milinkovic-Savic have been brought in from eastern Europe but will need time to adapt to Belgium.

Fabien Camus leaving on loan deprives Genk of the creativity they are often rightly accused of lacking with magic being in short supply and Kalidou Koulibaly will leave a huge hole to fill at the back having arguably been the best centreback in the league. He moved to Napoli for close to €10m, further cementing the healthy balance sheet of the merger club. There is experience at the back with Kara and Jeroen Simaeys looking to act as a mentor to Christian Kabasele, who has joined from KAS Eupen while Ayub Masika has been converted into a rightback à la Thomas Meunier. New goalkeeper Marco Bizot was impressive in goal against FC Porto and will put pressure on Köteles but whoever is in goal will hope the defenders’ build-up play is much sharper come the competition proper.

Talented youngsters aren’t in short supply and we have yet to mention Pieter Gerkens, Sandy Walsh or Thomas Castagne, who has made a very good impression in pre-season and his progress is being monitored closely by the coaching staff. In order to faciliate their development, more must be asked of the likes of Mboyo, Julien Gorius, a Benji De Ceulaer who too often flatters to deceive and a hopefully rejuvenated Khaleem Hyland whose regression is a source of genuine frustration. The future looks promising for Genk but the supporters may have to bide their time.

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