JPL Preview: Standard Liège – Have they lost their soul?

“The door is closed to Standard. The club has lots its soul. Since the departure of Luciano D’Onofrio and Pierre François, I don’t see a comeback happening.”

Those were the words of former Belgian international striker Emile Mpenza, speaking to the reputable Sport/Voetbalmagazine a month ago. And powerful they were too for they struck right at the heart of the divide, which exists among fans of Standard Liège. Labelled by some the Marseille of Belgium, passions invariably run high on the banks or the river Meuse. There are those, who never wanted to see current chairman Roland Duchâtelet take over, even if he stepped in when the club looked set for Dutch investment group Value 8. Some will never truly accept that the D’Onofrio era is now passé and that for better or worse, the club are seeking to move forward.

In this climate of scepticism, often unjustified due to loyalty to the ancien régime, many have criticised the lack of ambition from Duchâtelet and his sporting director Jean-François De Sart. If last season saw internationally renowned players such as Steven Defour and Axel Witsel bid farewell, the remnants of the previous generation have been let go, including Felipe to Hannover 96. However, it’s easy to lose sight of that fact when one delves into the circumstances of the transfers of last season’s first-choice strikers.

Meme Tchité became the first player to don the shirt of Belgium’s big three when he controversially joined Club Brugge, who saw the chance to both weaken a direct rival and add a proven striker for the relatively low sum of €1.2m. This can be explained by the release fee clause inserted into his Standard contract by former chief executive Pierre François. Tchité’s old partner in crime, Cyriac, made the move to bitter rivals Anderlecht. He too had a release fee clause of €2m, provided he left before the middle of July but will not see action until 2013.

Curiously, there are non-footballing reasons widely believed to behind both moves ; Tchité’s hitherto unmet desire to play for Belgium (with former national boss Georges Leekens, FIFA Executive Committee member Michel D’Hooghe and former Belgian PM Jean-Luc Dehaene having friends in high places) and Cyriac’s desire to gain a Belgian passport to smooth the way for a future move to a bigger league whilst, if you believe what he says, playing for a genuine title contender.

New coach Ron Jans has taken everything in his stride. A new country for the former German teacher, he has impressed many observers with his ability to speak French inside a matter of weeks. And he comes with a good track record – 8 years at FC Groningen where he led them into Europe and worked with the likes of Luis Suarez and Marcus Berg. He then joined their northern rivals SC Heerenveen and after a difficult maiden year,  last season they were right in the title mix along with AZ, Ajax, PSV, FC Twente and Feyenoord, no mean feat. He has also won over fans with his policy of more open training sessions and promised to deliver attacking football in a 4-3-3 system.

Jans is able to welcome a number of new additions to Sclessin this summer, with Duchâtelet not afraid to invest in all areas of the side. Japanese international Eiji Kawashima will succeed the injured but soon-to-depart Sinan Bolat in goal, bringing international experience to the defence. Frédéric Bulot will add some incisiveness down the left and midfielder Astrit Adjarevic has been impressive in pre-season ; the Swede is already a popular figure with the fans and has a cultured left foot. The onus will be on Marvin Ogunjimi (on loan) to prove himself once again after a fruitless stint in Spain with Real Mallorca. He will need to live up to De Sart’s tag of the best Belgian striker though is currently lacking match sharpness.

The defence has been solid during the friendlies with Jans’ major tactical move in putting Jelle van Damme at centre-half working well thus far. When newcomer Yohan Tavares, who eschewed comparisons with the aforementioned Jorge Costa, is fully fit in September, he should line up on the right-hand side of central defence. Sébastien Pocognoli is the best left-back in the league but has not yet ruled out a move abroad, which no-one would begrudge him but Remi Gershon is capable of stepping up. Jans is also spoilt for choice at right-back and it would be nice to see how Daniel Opare could grow under the Dutchman. Creating chances was a problem against Trabzonspor, which in my view should prompt Jans to play both Nacho Gonzalez and Ajdarevic, thereby choosing between Yoni Buyens and William Vainqueur in front of the defence.

Credit must be given where it’s due as it has been a turbulent period for les Rouches. However, with the capacity of the stadium now increased, better than expected season ticket sales and a number of new players with time on their side, Standard can rightly expect a better season than last. While some fear the consequences of a poor start to the season, it’s equally true that they could steal a march on their rivals who will be burdened with the distraction of European competition. Standard might have lost a few players this summer but they most certainly have not lost their soul.

Last season: 4th place (5th in PO1)
Head coach: Ron Jans
Star player: Jelle van Damme
Title odds: 13/2
Prediction: 4th

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