Zulte Waregem; runners up to relegated?
Zulte Waregem’s bubble may well have burst for the time being, but it’s certainly worth remembering where this club have come from and writing them off is precisely what you shouldn’t do.
Two seasons ago Zulte Waregem pushed Anderlecht all the way to the final day for the title. It came down to a proverbial shootout between the two sides as they played each other in a ‘winner takes all’ contest. As is often the case in football, it ended up a draw which was enough for Anderlecht to be crowned champions for consecutive seasons.
Anderlecht would go on to finish top of the pile again the following season, making it three in a row. While many expected Zulte Waregem to fade into obscurity they defied their critics and finished 4th. An incredible feat in a season where they had to combine heightened expectations of opposing teams with a testing Europa League campaign.
But perhaps it was all just delaying the inevitable. Challenging Anderlecht for the title was akin to a team such as Stoke pushing Manchester United all the way. The unexpected underdogs going toe-to-toe with the established powerhouse, a refreshing change to the accepted dogma but to all intents and purposes an unsustainable idea. Now, Zulte Waregem are struggling at the bottom of the league and for the naysayers they will claim it was always going to happen.
The talented Thorgan Hazard has departed for pastures new having driven Zulte Waregem, often on his lonesome, while on loan with the club. Junior Malanda and Jonathan Delaplace have also moved on to Germany and France respectively and created a vacuous hole in the middle of the pitch. While manager Francky Dury has done a tremendous job of patching up the leaks in the past replacing his supreme trio with Kylian Hazard, Thorgan’s younger brother, Charni Ekangamene and Chuks Aneke has left him with a ship filling up with water quicker than he can bail it out.
While talented players, (Manchester United and Arsenal fans may be familiar with Ekangamene and Aneke) it’s like selling your sports car and replacing them with a family car; convenient and has its uses, but not as flash, not as eye-catching and not as awe-inspiring as what they once had. In fact in the recent 2-0 win over Genk, a timely reminder that this team is not one to be underestimated, none of the new trio started the game.
Instead the driving force behind Zulte Waregem today has fallen on the shoulders of James Troisi. The Australian-Greek attacking midfielder has been inspirational for the side and often lifts the team off the back of his own performances. His deflected shot was the second goal of the game against Genk and effectively sealed the match while just a week previous his late goal against Standard Liége looked to have sealed the win before crowd trouble forced the match to be suspended. Those three points will be awarded in the shape of a 5-0 win and see Zulte Waregem lift off the bottom of the table. There isn’t a huge worry that Zulte Waregem will be relegated – but the longer the season goes on with them flattering to deceive then the worry will naturally begin to increase.
The goals and performances of the Socceroo – the name given to Australian national team representatives – have been highly beneficial to the club and even himself. He has added more international caps since his arrival and will have his eyes set on January’s AFC Asian Cup – the Asian version of the European Championships which Australia also take part in – to further his national team career. While time away from Zulte Waregem may prove detrimental it will be time for players like Idrissa Sylla and Theo Bongonda, only 18, to step up and carrying the weight of expectation of the club.
People may not be overly worried about Zulte Waregem being relegated. Inexperienced as they may be they have the quality to stay up ahead of other teams such as Cercle Brugge, Lierse and Waasland-Beveren, but should they not improve on a consistent basis, they may be forgotten as a Play Off 1 team for good and consigned to lower table anonymity once more.