Racing Genk let momentum slip as title race intensifies

Racing Genk are a side who have come a long way in the space of sixteen months. They are also a side who are not completely unaccustomed to being at the summit of Belgian football, having won the league in 1999 and 2002. In recent seasons since their second place in 2007, they had grossly underperformed in the league. Hein Vanhaezebrouck, attracted east to Limburg after a successful first spell at Kortrijk, his 3-4-3 system backfired spectacularly and left Genk in a perilous state. The management decided to act and bring in Franky Vercauteren, who stabilised the team and led them to the Europa League courtesy of Belgium’s curious and controversial play-off system.

This season, with a full pre-season behind him, Vercauteren has taken a talented side, who had punched below their weight in seasons past, right to the top of the standings. Genk had been catapulted from mid-table stragglers, whose fans looked on in awe, envy and frustration at the likes of Zulte Waregem and Kortrijk, to a side who were going toe to toe with Anderlecht, Club Brugge, KAA Gent and Standard Liège.

Employing a 4-4-2 system, Vercauteren has been able to extract the best out of the likes of Jelle Vossen and Marvin Oginjimi in attack and he has coaxed Israeli striker Elyaniv Barda back to the form everyone knows he is capable of. And that is not to neglect the contributions of Kevin De Bruyne, who is one of the most sought after players in Belgium alongside Romelu Lukaku and Steven Defour, and Tőzsér Dániel, the Hungarian midfielder, whose vision is an asset in the middle of the park.

At the climax of the regular season, Genk finished on 64 points from 30 games, an impressive total, which left them just one point behind Anderlecht. However, the statistics do not explain the full story for the Brussels side were well into crisis mode after the unfortunate but inevitable departure of Mbark Boussoufa to Russian Premier League site Anzhi. Boussoufa has been a class apart in recent years and as an aside, he is a player who should grace a greater stage than a side who cannot base themselves in Makhachkala for safety reasons. Anderlecht wheeled out the big guns on Belgian television in an attempt to calm stormy waters.

And so to action on the pitch. De Smurfen predictably disposed of surprise package Lokeren in the first game with a 2-1 victory before falling victim to a stunning late fightback from Standard in Sclessin, going down 2-1 after an injury time winner from Aloys Nong. Anderlecht had been humiliated 3-1 at home by a Standard side, whom they knew would be understrength, as Dominique D’Onofrio prioritised the Beker semi-final second leg against Gent. Club Brugge rubbed more salt into Paarswit wounds, inflicing a 3-0 drubbing on the champions, for whom the surrender of their crown was fast becoming a fait accompli.

The next encounter on the schedule, which took place tonight (Friday) was the perfect opportunity for Genk to strike a fatal blow to Anderlecht’s title chances. Genk, top of the table, travelled to a sold out Constant vanden Stock Stadium, knowing that a victory would open up a five point gap at the top with seven matches to play. What was to follow was quite a surprise and although it served as a warning to all that Anderlecht must never be written off, the overriding emotion was bewilderment at a missed opportunity.

The home side, perhaps with little to lose and 25,000+ fans behind them, began on the front foot and looked to take the game to the visitors. With the skill and guile of Boussoufa no longer able to be called upon, Ariël Jacobs’ gameplan of power and direct balls forward to Romelu Lukaku and Dalibor Veselinovic worked a treat. The front players bullied Genk’s backline with their strength but also deceived them with their movement and exposed them with their deft link-up play. Allied to the sometimes harshly underrated Jonathan Legear’s skilful exploits on the wing, it was a combination too hot to handle and it was little surprise when RSCA took a sixth minute lead when Veselinovic scored after Kanu failed to make contact with Jan Lecjaks’ cross.

Genk looked a shadow of their usual selves, principally due to the fact that Barda had been left on the bench by Vercauteren, who preferred recent signing Kennedy – a rangy Nigerian forward signed from Finnish side Inter Turku. Kennedy struggled against Ondrej Mazuch and Juhász Roland all evening and his plight symbolised that of his team. There were a few half-chances created courtesy of Thomas Buffel, who was denied by the legs of Silvio Proto and Tőzsér from a free-kick but Genk were extremely fortunate to be just the solitary goal behind after an hour.

The 62nd minute brought the belated introduction of Barda, who livened the Genk attack up somewhat although it was a case of too little, too late. Lukaku, who looked liberated alongside the equally strong Veselinovic, played arguably his finest game of the campaign. Yes, his finishing did let him down at times but his touch and positioning were a joy to watch, as was his awareness of where his team-mates were and his ability to bring others into play. Even before he secured the three points with an 80th minute header, he had made a complete fool of Torben Joneleit, when he turned the German inside the box 20 minutes earlier. On that occasion, he was denied by Genk’s 18-year old ‘keeper Thibaut Courtois.

Anderlecht ran out comfortable 2-0 winners and rather ominously returned to the top of the league. They may not have the quality Boussoufa brought and Tom De Sutter may well be out with injury but what they have is a winning mentality and sizeable reserves of determination and willpower, which come from the mentally strong Jacobs. Vercauteren had blundered where D’Onofrio had succeeded. By omitting Ogunjimi and particularly Barda, he was attempting to play the long game. He was saving key attackers for future conquests, which he feels his side are more likely to thrive in.

However, he was guilty of being a little too clever and for my money, he got exactly what he deserved. Anderlecht were there for the taking and Genk simply did not show up. And can one really blame the players, who do not live in a bubble and will have been affected by the selection. Vercauteren has won two Belgian titles, with Anderlecht in the middle of the last decade (two more than I will ever win), so he is only too well aware of the route map to glory, even if he did not have to contend with the play-offs. Anderlecht ignored the prophets of doom and did what every team should, indeed what every team has an obligation to, go for the three points on offer. Genk may well go on to triumph but they’ll have done it the hard way, having allowed Belgium’s own Rekordmeister to slip back into its favourite armchair looking down on everyone else.

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