PO1: Zulte Waregem – Standard Liège preview
With our PSV-Ajax special, you could be forgiven that the titanic clash in Eindhoven was the only show in town this weekend. Fear not for the play-offs continue south of the border and tonight sees arguably the two most impressive sides of PO1 to date meet in Waregem. While the field has been brought closer together due to Belgian football’s version of the safety car – halving the points of the top six – the inability of anyone (Anderlecht) to take the bull by the horns means there’s still little to choose between the leading teams, which in theory should make for lots of tension and excitement.
Zulte Waregem show no signs of falling away in spite of many awaiting an inevitable nose bleed. They were not at their best in the first game at home to Lokeren but they outplayed Genk in Limburg last week only to be denied the three points by a lack of clinical finishing. Two draws may not look all that impressive on paper but as we know, scorelines don’t always tell the full story even in a results business. Where many of their most illustrious rivals struggle to find fluency or are hamstrung by the fear of losing, Essevee were enterprising in Genk and a constant threat going forward.
Standard’s Clasico with Anderlecht was a major disappointment for the neutrals and served as compelling evidence against the play-off system. However, four points from six represents a more than acceptable haul for Mircea Rednic, who has placed great emphasis on tightening les Rouches up at the back, even if they sacrifice some potency going forward. Although the 2009 champions are just six points off Anderlecht, there will come a time when the handbrake will have to come off if they want to challenge for a Champions League spot. There were those who felt ex-coach Ron Jans’ stated goal of the top three was fanciful for a young team but there remains everything to play for in Belgium this spring.
One major tactical difference between these sides is that Zulte Waregem employ a genuine playmaker in the shape of Franck Berrier whereas Standard normally play two strikers (Ezekiel and Batshuayi) in front of two energetic midfielders (Buyens and Vainqueur), though they have the option to put in Adrian Cristea. Berrier spent one and a half unhappy and difficult seasons at Sclessin in between his two spells with Essevee and largely due to injury problems, he never managed to put down roots and be a success in Liège. Nevertheless, he claims he is not out for revenge as he’s already played (and won) against them since returning to the Regenboogstadion.
It does still wrankle with the Frenchman though that he did not make his mark at a major club and he has made no secret of his desire for a new challenge next season. If his intentions were already known a while back, the timing of his latest comments is far from ideal and hints that he knows more than he is letting on. Berrier said that even Champions League qualification for Francky Dury’s men would not persuade him to extend his stay at the club. While a transfer to his native France would undoubtedly appeal, it would be no surprise if a number of Essevee’s PO1 rivals were sniffing around the talismanic figure, who while not as prolific in front of goal of late, is still the man who makes his team tick. Berrier’s ambition and the situation surrounding goalkeeper Sammy Bossut show what a tough task Zulte Waregem have if they want to continue to punch above their weight.
Much was made of William Vainqueur’s midfield clash against Lucas Biglia last week. Few would dispute that Biglia was vanquished by his Standard counterpart, who was a towering figure alongside Yoni Buyens. Not only was he combative and successful in the duels but he also bested the Argentine deep-lying playmaker in terms of his use of the ball and if he maintains this form, Newcastle will have him at the top of their list in the event of the departure of Yohan Cabaye or Cheick Tioté. Tonight, Vainqueur comes up against Junior Malanda, himself the subject of recent interest from Club Brugge and Fulham. It promises to be a fascinating match-up between the ex-Nantes man and the Belgium u21 international, who is one of the revelations of the season – much like Essevee.
Zulte Waregem have a third chance to overtake Anderlecht (for the time being at least) and sit atop the table. Standard feel they have the momentum and know a win could put them right in contention. With three games coming up in the next week or so, surely now is the time to make a move.
For Zulte Waregem, Bossut remains on the bench as he is supposedly not yet 100% so Bruzzese deputises once more. Standard bring in playmaker Cristea and the speedy Kensuke Nagai, who showed promising signs last week against Anderlecht for Paul-José Mpoku and leading scorer Imoh Ezekiel.
Zulte Waregem: Bruzzese ; De fauw, Colpaert, D’Haene, Godeau ; Delaplace, Malanda ; Naessens, Berrier, Hazard, Leye
Standard Liège: Kawashima ; Opare, Ciman, Kanu, van Damme ; Buyens, Vainqueur ; Bulot, Cristea, Nagai ; Batshuayi