JPL Preview: Standard Liège – Duchâtelet under fire
Covering Belgium at the World Cup is undoubtedly the pinnacle for a Belgian football journalist but on a day-to-day basis, Standard Liège is the gift that keeps on giving. There’s rarely, if ever, a dull moment on the banks of la Meuse and this summer has been no different at Sclessin. Standard were the best team over 40 games last season, amassing 82 points but that still didn’t hand them the championship much to the bemusement of Guy Luzon, who is never short of a word or two.
Luzon may have been a relative unknown when he arrived in Liège last summer with his glamorous wife Dana but he quickly became a colourful figure on the sidelines, following in the footsteps of predecessors such as Michel Preud’homme, Jan Boskamp and Bölöni László. From day one of the league season, he has faced a groundswell of opinion that is dismissive of a tactical plan seen as simplistic and lacking in sophistication. His rotation system and a (more than) perceived dismissive attitude towards the club’s Europa League campaign did him no favours. The high-tempo intense game sometimes lacking in subtlety and his lack of sang froid are viewed by critics as to being behind Standard’s failure to hold off the Anderlecht challenge in the play-offs.
The transfer activity during the off-season has done little to whet the appetite of fans hoping les Rouches can go one better this time around. William Vainqueur, the metronome in midfield, finally got his big-money move when he joined Lokomotiv Moscow. Rightback Daniel Opare left for FC Porto on a free and the strike duo that fetched 33 goals between them last season is all but gone. Michy Batshuayi could not turn down a move to the mythical Olympique Marseille and despite not making the Belgian World Cup squad in part due to his selfish attitude, he is a player with bags of potential and has what it takes to be loved in the spider’s web that is the Stade Vélodrome.
His partner in crime Imoh Ezekiel can treble his wages in Qatar, pocketing Standard €8m in the process although it would be a crying shame from a footballing point of view to see him ply his trade at such a pitiful level of the game. That said, the departure of Kanu, while no surprise, leaves the most bitter taste in the mouth as he engineered an exit by invoking the infamous 1978 Act on employment contracts, which allows an employee to buy himself out of his contract. The legal process is still to be resolved but it’s a minor relief that the Brazilian centreback didn’t join Anderlecht, which would have opened a real can of worms (and there are enough of them in Mechelen as it is!).
In their stead have come Slovenian rightback Martin Milec to replace Opare, Jorge Teixeira to fill Kanu’s shoes (a fairytale return for Daniel van Buyten was rendered impossible by relations between the player’s agent and Standard) and Adrian Trebel, who treads the same path as William Vainqueur from Nantes to Sclessin. It’s a great source of frustration for Luzon, who has been outspoken in his belief that the squad, which also has injuries to some key players, is patently not ready to take on the twin challenges of a Champions League qualifier against Panathinaikos and a league campaign in which the top three should be the minimum expected.
Normally, one would expect a manager to be given a severe rap on the knuckles but at Wednesday night’s business meeting, owner Roland Duchâtelet could not hide away from the unpalatable truth and nor is it in his interest to further stoke discontent among the fans. Duchâtelet was defiant and claimed that he will put together a squad by the end of the window worthy of the club’s status and objectives. Standard are not short of money but they are short of a sporting director. Jean-François De Sart left the club after rejecting the opportunity to take up a new role overseeing the ensemble of clubs in the Duchâtelet empire.
Ah…the empire or the galaxy as some call it. Duchâtelet has fingers in many pies including Charlton and Ujpest. There is a school of thought that says those clubs have been bolstered this summer at Standard’s expense. Luzon could definitely do with Yoni Buyens in midfield and Igor Vetokele should really be firing the goals in at Sclessin and not The Valley, hence the outrage of the supporters. Duchâtelet is having to negotiate more deals himself in conjunction with Israeli agent Dudu Dahan and scout Marc van Osselaer, who had a role in bringing Ezekiel to the club.
The sad fact is that with the importance of the play-off system Standard justifiably remain implacably opposed to, it’s no longer quite as important to get early runs on the board, which is certainly no excuse for the shambles we have seen this summer. Moves for midfielder Landry N’Guemo and Cédric Bakambu both look to have broken down while a marquee signing is required to lift the spirits. There is interest in signing Nicolas Anelka but that is likely to go down like a lead balloon with Luzon, who could see that as the final straw if he doesn’t get reinforcements elsewhere. Of course, a final assessment can only be made when September comes around.
Are there any grounds for optimism at this stage? Standard were written off twelve months ago, albeit with a much stronger squad. Igor De Camargo has to shoulder the goalscoring burden though his international days look to be over. Youngsters Julien De Sart and Dino Arslanagic are improving all the time, the lack of striking options provides a chance for Mbombo to break through and Standard are strong out wide with Bia, Mpoku and Carcela. Ready or not, there’ll be no hiding place come Friday night’s season-opening derby at home to Charleroi.