Preview: Going where no Racing Genk team has gone before
In spite of Anderlecht’s creditable performances in the Champions League group stages (they still finished bottom), Racing Genk are the only Belgian side to still be in European competition after the winter break. They reached the knockout stages after going through a group containing FC Basel, Sporting and Videoton unbeaten, topping the group to boot. More significantly in terms of the club’s 25-year history since the merger between Waterschei Thor and KFC Winterslag, it is the first time they have accomplished this feat.
The significance of this achievement is not lost on the club’s supporter base, with more than 4000 fans making the trip from the east of Belgium to south-western Germany where they will take on VfB Stuttgart in the newly-renovated and expanded Mercedes-Benz Arena. Genk are still fighting on three fronts – if the league title is now but a distant prospect and the less prestigious cup the best chance of a trophy, they can dare to dream on this Europa League adventure.
When the draw for the last 32 was made, Stuttgart were ninth in the Bundesliga with 25 points. Almost two months and four league games later, they remain on 25 points but have slipped to fourteenth spot in the standings. Last weekend, they were soundly beaten by a Kevin De Bruyne inspired Werder Bremen but the former Genk star, who is owned by Chelsea, was quick to point out that while Stuttgart are going through a rough patch, they are clearly underachieving at the moment.
De Bruyne and fellow Bundesliga Belgian Filip Daems of Borussia Mönchengladbach both highlighted die Roten’s weakness at the back and their capacity to make costly individual errors. While it is true to say that Genk have wisely invested the funds brought in from the sales of De Bruyne, Thibaut Courtois and Christian Benteke to build a deep and balanced squad, their strength undoubtedly lies in their attacking prowess.
Genk average over two goals per game this season in Belgium, being outscored only by Anderlecht and Club Brugge. Their main threat is unquestionably frontman Jelle Vossen, who in the past has been heavily linked with a move to Fiorentina. Ideally he would play just behind the main striker but he has adapted his game this season to play alongside first-choice partner creative Benjamin De Ceulaer. However, coach Mario Been can also turn to target man Glynor Plet among others – the youngster on loan from FC Twente has a better goals to minutes ratio than any leading scorer in Belgium bar Dieumerci Mbokani.
Despite having a good coach, who is an astute analyst of the game and still featuring in three competitions in February, the Limburg club have endured a great deal of frustration this season. A key weakness has been a tendency to let leads slip late on games, without which they would have more than a mere outside chance of seriously challenging runaway leaders Anderlecht.
Furthermore, like their opponents, they are far from being watertight at the back. In fairness, this is not necessarily down to a lack of quality defenders but their leaky backline can be attributed to a couple of factors. Firstly, injuries to the likes of Jeroen Simaeys and Torben Joneleit meant they had to make do with Anele and Nadson at the start of the season. Secondly, their coach is very attack minded and full-backs Dani Fernandez and Derick Tshimanga are not shy in coming forward into the opponents’ half. Finally, they have not had a settled goalkeeper for the entire season but the Hungarian László Köteles has now rightfully been given the nod of Kristof van Hout, the tallest professional player in the game.
One person who has greatly enhanced his reputation this season is centre-back Kalidou Koulibaly in spite of the team’s overall weak points. Since arriving from Metz, the France u21 international has proved to be an imposing figure at the back who takes no prisoners though he does end up in the referee’s notebook a little too often. Ex-Rangers midfielder Thomas Buffel has had a wonderfully consistent season at the age of 32, leading to a top ten finish in the Belgian Golden Shoe awards and a first international call-up in over two years.
Julien Gorius was a marquee signing last summer when he arrived from KV Mechelen. A dominant figure at his former club, particularly in terms of goals, he has had difficulty adjusting to being one of many fine players and to having his trademark forward runs curtailed. In recent games, Been has opted for the more powerful Bernard Kumordzi in midfield and the ex-Dijon man has lent a better balance in that key area alongside the hugely impressive Khaleem Hyland, whose stock is rising by the game .
Nobody at Genk will be fooled by Stuttgart’s recent woes but nor should anyone at the club be guilty of taking the Belgian side lightly. Ill at ease when having to play a containing game, in this historic European campaign, they have nothing to lose.