Sven Kums good again for Gent in the Champions League
Zenit 2-1 KAA Gent
As has been well documented on BeNeFoot, KAA Gent are atypical champions. They have no real stars – the team is the star. They are also remarkable simply by way of their first appearance in the group phase but it was not by accident that the bigger guns in the G5 fell short last season.
Playing in the Champions League is an experience like no other. It offers the kind of exposure that lifts the previously unheralded squad out of its comfort zone and catapults them and their manager into the bright lights of the greatest club competition in the world, complete with its iconic signature tune.
The game against Lyon afforded a new status to some of Gent’s key men. It wasn’t just fans from France or other European countries who were pleasantly surprised at the quality on show but even many inside Belgium. Even those who are prepared to put tribal domestic loyalties to one side when Belgian teams do battle in European competition. Even those who petulantly moaned that Gent’s title was undeserved or that a ‘big’ team should represent the country in the Champions League to avoid a whitewash.
Now from being players of whom the question was being asked as to whether they can ensure Gent are not a one-season wonder, the likes of Laurent Depoitre, Matz Sels and most vociferously, Sven Kums are being touted as potential call-ups to a Belgium squad where home-based players are few and far between in these times of plenty.
It wasn’t that long ago that Depoitre was plying his trade for then second-tier KV Oostende. His barnstorming aggression, ability to make the most of his physical presence and intelligent link play that gets the best out of his teammates have made him a firm fan favourite. He may not have featured on the scoresheet against Lyon but he led the line superbly and deserved more individual reward for his performance – but then Depoitre is not about himself – the manager wouldn’t have it any other way. A pugnacious player, he picked up his second booking this evening and had a harder time against Zenit’s defenders whom he found it more difficult to bully. His customary aggression has no doubt left a few marks on Lombaerts, the international defender’s unfortunate injury aside.
Matz Sels is an excellent young goalkeeper and he made himself a hero with his late penalty save to deny Alexandre Lacazette and Lyon a flattering win against nine men. Seen as a potential third-choice for his country, he was called upon early on in St. Petersburg and showed that his reflexes were cat-like, tipping a free kick around the post and showing lightning-quick reactions to claw one point-blank shot over the bar. Even towards the end, he was fast and decisive in coming off his line to make a smothering save. Neither of the two goals could be attributed to him either but impressive from my perspective was that he actually looked a touch uncertain in the first half against Lyon yet was able to bounce back with his teams’ backs against the wall.
The real star of the show – and the one with the best claim to a call-up on Friday when Marc Wilmots announces his squad – is Sven Kums. Made captain by Vanhaezebrouck who knew him from their days together at Kortrijk, here is a player who leads by example. It is accurate to describe him as a midfield metronome but that description does not do justice to the class he possesses in his boots. Alongside the precision and efficiency is an ability to carve open a defence with a decisive ball. He did so against Lyon to set up Danijel Milicevic’s equaliser and he weighted a beautiful pass to perfection that allowed Thomas Matton to volley home in St. Petersburg. The safe option is by no means his only one.
Kums was at the heart of Gent’s play, controlling the tempo of their play and ensuring they enjoyed the majority of the ball – no given in a difficult away game. He made himself constantly available to receive the ball, relieve his teammates and keep the team moving. Even though he was up against Axel Witsel, a key figure in Wilmots’ side and vastly experienced, he more than held his own, attempting 89 passes and completing 75 – an excellent return from a player who does not limit himself to the easy ball but is willing to take a risk to drive the team forward. It was a timely performance from the former Heerenveen man and not just with a look ahead to Friday but in light of the recent criticism aimed at Witsel.
Of course, it is always easy to extol the virtues of players outside the setup but were Kums to continue to perform in the group stages, he would present a compelling case for Wilmots to consider over the next nine months. Witsel remains an outstanding footballer – one of the very best in the squad – and the penny has dropped that he needs to test himself more rigorously on a regular basis in Western Europe.
Kums’ majestic performance was not enough to see Gent become the first Belgian team to remain unbeaten after their first two group stage games. Against this team unit of Vanhaezebrouck, which is now benefiting from the services of a voice coach, it was Zenit’s unmistakable superstar Hulk whose individual quality proved the difference between the sides on the night. The Brazilian aside, there is little for Gent to fear despite Zenit’s Gazprom-fuelled riches and they are capable of reversing this result at the Ghelamco Arena. Before then, there’s the small matter of Marc Wilmots’ squad for the games against Andorra and Israel. He would be well advised to give Sven Kums a call.