Jupiler Pro League Week 12: Five Things…
Finally we bring you a feature that looks back at the past week in Belgian football. This time we look at whether the good times are over for John van den Brom and Anderlecht, how European commitments are affecting the league’s sides, the massive relegation battle, Matias Suarez’s ongoing injury concerns and Luke Harvey tells us just who the best striker in the Belgian Pro League is.
John van den Brom’s changes don’t work, fighting against the tide at Anderlecht
It has been a long week for John van den Brom in the Anderlecht hot seat, considered by many to operating on borrowed time a home win over league leaders and arch rivals Standard would be the perfect tonic for a week of turmoil.
Overran in mid week by a frightening PSG who were spearheaded by four goal Zlatan Ibrahimovic meant the match with Standard took on even more importance than usual. Van den Brom made some changes and youngsters Youri Tielemans and Dennis Praet could only be accommodated on the bench as experience was understandably preferred. It looked to be a shrewd move as Sasha Kljestan saw Anderlecht into the lead within the first minute which will have left van den Brom breathing a little more easily. Unfortunately for him, Imoh Ezekiel responded after half an hour with a headed goal, and as Anderlecht failed to really push the issue when Standard were down to ten and then nine men (the away side also saw their manager sent to the stands) it does not look good when you look back on paper.
So yet again the headache continues with van den Brom, now without Matias Suarez for the rest of the season, he will continue to figure out how best to work with Alexander Mitrovic on the frontline. Against Standard he went with a forward two as Cyriac Gohi Bi partnered the Serbian, but with a lack of match fitness following a long injury spell it was no surprise to see the Ivorian make way during the match. Kljestan has been unusually unreliable as of late but his goal in the match reinforces his importance to the team, Tielemans didn’t see the pitch after a whirlwind start to his professional career and Massimo Bruno and Praet only saw action from the bench.
Captain Guillame Gillet was stretchered off and his lay off is yet to be determined, the coach also struggles to figure out how best to utilise N’Sakala on the left. Used at left back and found wanting against PSG when Gregory van der Wiel turned him this way and that he was pushed further up the field against Standard as the more reliable, but slower, Oli Deschacht covered for him. It’s all an issue that could probably have been avoided if van den Brom had had any faith in Behrang Safari, who in my eyes was the best left back in the league.
Anderlecht’s opponents next week are KV Oostende and you’d think they would be the perfect victims for Anderlecht to right their wrongs, but it is something of a red herring. Anything but a comfortable win will be seen as problematic by the fans and a comfortable win will only be seen as expected, with a trip to Paris in the offing and Ibrahimovic waiting, we could be back to square one before long – with or without van den Brom.
European commitments have mixed affect on Pro League sides
Europe has caused problems for Belgian teams in recent months. Anderlecht’s destruction at the hands of Ibrahimovic watched by a stoic van den Brom has already been covered, but the league’s other representatives have also found it hard going.
Standard have had an undisciplined week as two on the field sendings off at Anderlecht were preceded by two sendings off in the 2-1 defeat to Salzburg of Austria. It leaves Standard on the brink of elimination from the competition, and with their current league form it’s unthinkable to see then propping up a group of Salzburg, Elfsborg and Esbjerg.
The difficulties in Europe has translated to the league game as well, Anderlecht and Standard faced off against each other with much changed line ups to those that played mid week. Zulte Waregem also found the going difficult in the league as they could only follow up their 3-1 defeat to Maribor with a 1-1 draw against Sporting Charleroi. That said just three days after returning from a 4-0 hammering in Russia by Rubin Kazan, the loveable Essevee then claimed the scalp of the then yet-to-lose Standard Liege. Zulte are a strong team but with a lack of squad depth, their first foray into Europe looks set to come to a close at the first time of asking and that may not necessarily be a bad thing for Francky Dury’s men.
They do not have the squad size to rotate sufficiently should they run deep into the tournament, and this way it will allow them to concentrate on domestic matters. Not as strong or surprising as last year, as well as up against stronger opposition as Standard, Club Brugge and Genk all seem better than they did last season, means a PO1 finish is not a foregone conclusion for Zulte Waregem. They play again mid week, this time against KAA Gent in the league who will no doubt be looking at Zulte’s recent success with envy.
Racing Genk were the only team not to lose in Europe this week as they played out a 1-1 draw with Austria Wien. Genk have actually had a good time of it in Europe, while the others have floundered, and their inability to beat the Austrian side was the first points dropped in their group. Then with relatively the same side they then trumped Club Brugge 2-0 at the Jan Breydel Stadion to move themselves up to second in the table after the twelfth round of matches.
European duties will come calling again in a few short weeks so attention will once again turn to how well the league sides can cope with the rigours of extra matches and longer travel as well as how comfortably they can return to Pro League duty on the weekend after.
The best striker in the Pro League revealed
There’s a lot made of the talent currently plying their trade in the league, especially the young players and even more so the ones who represent Belgium. Youri Tielemans is the latest future star of Belgium and has teammates Dennis Praet and Massimo Bruno to keep him company. Standard aim to win the league on the back of goals from Michy Batshuayi and great things are expected from Maxime Lestienne at Club Brugge. However it is an experienced African who is the most complete striker in the league.
Hamdi Harbaoui, in my mind, has consistently proven himself to be the best and most complete striker in the league. Prolific since he moved to Belgium he has notched 95 goals in his 171 appearances since signing for Excelsior Mouscron in 2007. Having scored 12 goals in both previous seasons with Lokeren he looks set to smash his top flight record having already scored 11 goals in 12 appearances this season.
At 28 years of age he is pretty much past the point of experiencing that big money move. Top sides from England, Spain, France and elsewhere have eyes only for the precocious youngsters making their way through the ranks – and even the likes of Anderlecht and Standard, who would benefit from a striker like Harbaoui, aren’t going to risk it at is age. Other clubs uncertainty is Lokeren’s gain though, as the Tunisian does not look like slowing down any time soon and in fact, like a fine wine, he seems to just keep improving as he gets older. When you see Lokeren have scored your mind instantly races to Harbaoui and it was no surprise to see that he got both goals in Lokeren’s weekend win at Waasland-Beveren.
Harbaoui may have been somewhat helped to his title as best striker in the league. Dieumerci Mbokanki and Carlos Bacca seemed to dwarf the competition but both made their moves to foreign shores. The form of Ibou declined rapidly towards the end of the season and Jeremy Perbet also left Mons for Villarreal. Mitrovic is yet to completely find his rhythm and Matias Suarez is injured again. In fact the Lokeren striker is finding his biggest competition coming from fellow Play Off 1 hopefuls Kotrijk in the shape of the Croatian Ivan Santini who has also bagged 11 this season.
Regardless of what happens through the year, or who finishes top goal scorer, my money will stay on Hamdi Harbaoui as the striker who closest resembles the finished article.
Time for Anderlecht to move Matias Suarez on
It was depressing but not surprising to read the news that Matias Suarez has once again been injured and will be out for the rest of the season. A lot has been made about the undoubted quality of the Anderlecht player who can play as a lead striker or a supporting wide man, but one thing that seems certain is that it seems like it is time for the experiment to end.
A player full of ability and class he was on the verge of a move to Russia to Moscow giants CSKA when he failed a medical. It was one in a long line of failed medical moves by Belgians looking to set up camp in eastern Europe, but after completing his rehabilitation it looked like Suarez may be set to contribute to Anderlecht’s title cause.
With Dieumerci Mbokani out, and Alexander Mitrovic in as his replacement it was the likes of Matias Suarez and Cyriac Gohi Bi – both long term medical room occupiers – who would need to help fill the goal scoring void. Suarez quickly found his form and managed to bag six goals in the season but a training ground injury means his total will remain the same.
It may seem harsh but with Anderlecht seemingly in turmoil it is not the time for the club to play wait and see with the Argentine. Anderlecht need an immediate turnaround and that is not something Suarez can offer them at the moment. Even continuing with Cyriac could be seen as a risk due to his long time injured, and with a lack of experience to back up the strikers it could be things aren’t going to get better for Anderlecht too quickly. John van den Brom’s position is under increasing scrutiny and should he make it to the end of the season, or even January, then his immediate concern should be ensuring he has the reliable players to first of all: score goals, and secondly: patch up that Lucas Biglia shaped hole as best as he can.
Unfortunately for Matias Suarez it may be he has to find himself a new club before he is to play football on a consistent basis again.
Possibly the biggest relegation scrap to come, six teams in danger
The relegation battle looks to be fiercely contested this year in Belgium and the interesting and controversial system means that no matter how bad the team that finishes bottom, they always have a chance to save themselves until the very end.
As it stands Mons are far and away the weakest team in the league, without the goals of Jeremy Perbet things quickly got ugly and even Belgian legend Enzo Scifo was not immortal to the managerial knife. Having failed to win a single game in 12 attempts Mons are already six points adrift of fifteenth placed Waasland-Beveren and it’s hard to see where things are going to get better for the side propping up the table. They haven’t been embarrassed in any of their matches yet, loses to Standard, Zulte and Club Brugge were all respectable and their defeat to Anderlecht somewhat undeserving albeit more due to Anderlecht’s inability than due to any strength from Mons.
It will be an important time for Mons as they face OH Leuven mid week and KV Oostende in less than a fortnight as they look to make a fist of the relegation battle before they are resigned to finishing bottom.
It is between the six teams occupying 11th to 16th, Lierse, Cercle Brugge, OH Leuven, KV Oostende, Waasland-Beveren and Mons, that the ferocious relegation battle will be contested. Lierse were poor last season but fortunate that Cercle Brugge and Beerschot were horribly managed, they may be able to see off the rest if they can pick points up at crucial times. That will be the main job for these teams, beating each other when the matches crop up.
Cercle Brugge have managed points against Gent and Zulte Waregem in recent weeks and seem much more stable under Lorenzo Staelens than they ever did under Bob Peeters. They should have enough about them long term to see themselves safe.
The real concern for me lies with KV Oostende and Waasland Beveren. Oostende are in that difficult position of trying to stay up after promotion while Waasland Beveren are looking to consolidate themselves as a regular Pro League team but both are struggling to pick up the points. Already before the half way point when the bottom six sides meet each other, every single point is going to be crucial.