Europa League preview: Zulte Waregem – Wigan
Tomorrow, Zulte Waregem will host Wigan Athletic in their first Europa League group stage game of the season. Wigan qualified for the competition by pulling off one of the great FA Cup final shocks in beating Manchester City 1-0 on the hallowed Wembley turf. Although the Latics would be relegated at the end of the league campaign, praise was showered on their Spanish manager Roberto Martinez, who has often been lauded for ensuring his side fight against the odds and stay in the Premier League long after their demise had first been predicted.
When the travelling support mingle with their Belgian counterparts on the streets of the picturesque city of Brugge (as the Regenboogstadion does not conform to UEFA standards), they will find they have plenty in common. There won’t be much of a language barrier and there will be a mutual love of beer. It surely won’t be long before both sets of fans derive great pleasure from sharing tales of what it’s like to be a small club that relishes the role of upsetting the big boys and defiantly neglecting to read the script. Zulte Waregem only came into being in their current guise back in 2001 when KSV Waregem and Zultse VV, two clubs based only a few miles apart in West-Vlaanderen, joined forces. Mergers are not uncommon in Belgian football – one only has to look at Racing Genk, formed in 1988.
They started as they meant to go on, winning the third division and securing promotion to the second tier. After twice finishing in the top five, they gained promotion from the second division in 2005 and immediately set up making waves in the Pro League. They won 1-3 away to KAA Gent in their first top flight game and recorded six victories in the first nine games. With five games to go, they were challenging Club Brugge and Gent for third spot but with a Belgian Cup final against Mouscron looming at the end of the season, they tailed off but still finished an excellent sixth behind the big five. Essevee began the showpiece game well, taking an early lead through Stefan Leleu and they were comfortably the better team in the first half. Adnan Custovic equalised on the hour but just when extra time was imminent, Tim Matthys came up with a superb free kick to hand Zulte Waregem their first major trophy and send them into the UEFA Cup.
And the shocks didn’t stop there. They faced a fiendishly difficult first round opponent in Lokomotiv Moscow. Essevee began the first leg very tentatively, not getting out of their own half until the eighth minute and not having a shot until just before half-time. Two goals down, they pulled something out of the fire as they had in the cup final when Jonas Vandermarliere scored a vital away goal in the 94th minute. Second half goals from Tim Matthys and Tony Sergeant allied to a stunning display from veteran goalkeeper Geert De Vlieger ensured qualification for the group stages. At that time, there were five teams in the group and sides rather unsatisfactorily played each other only once. Zulte Waregem won their first two games against Austria Wien and Sparta Prague, scoring seven goals in the process and though they lost 6-2 away to Espanyol and 3-0 at home to Ajax, they had qualified before the final matchday. Unfortunately, the run came to an end against Newcastle United, who won 4-1 on aggregate but no-one could denigrate their achievement of being the only Belgian team to still be in Europe after Christmas.
Two more top six finishes in subsequent seasons marked Zulte Waregem out as a team who more than just made up the numbers in the Pro League. Francky Dury, a former police detective who had first taken charge of Zultse VV in 1994, had proved beyond doubt that he was an outstanding head coach and he was lured to Gent in 2010. This began a difficult period for both Dury and his former club. Dury had a terrible record in the play-offs with De Buffalo’s and alienated many in Gent, not least due to incessant links to Club Brugge, where his former colleague Vincent Mannaert played a key role. Hugo Broos and Darije Kalezic (hailed as the “international Dury”) were undoing all the good work of the club’s first nine years and with Essevee’s top flight status under genuine threat, Dury answered his club’s call halfway during the 2011-12 season. He brought back former players Franck Berrier and Mbaye Leye and stabilised the club.
Last summer, I wrote that Zulte Waregem could expect an easier time of it, safe from the drop but I predicted an 11th place finish, highlighting concerns over the depth in the squad whilst noting their previous exploits. As in their first season, they won away to one of the big guns – this time Standard were on the wrong end of a 0-1 defeat at Sclessin. With an all-Belgian back five, a formidable midfield duo of Junior Malanda and Jonathan Delaplace, creativity and unpredictability from Franck Berrier and his protégé Thorgan Hazard and Dury’s trusted forward Leye, they also won away to Club Brugge (which precipitated the sacking of Georges Leekens) and Anderlecht to finish the regular season in second spot. After a turbulent play-off campaign, which brought a mix of high-scoring defeats, sensational triumphs and a fallout between Berrier and Leye, Zulte Waregem went into the final game in Brussels in the knowledge that a win would make them champions. Despite taking the lead through a goal from industrious forward Jens Naessens, Lucas Biglia’s farewell goal was enough to secure Anderlecht’s 32nd league championship. Nevertheless on a budget of just €8.5m, which is dwarfed by Wigan’s parachute payments alone, Dury got the absolute maximum out of his players.
Some cynics nevertheless begrudged the fact that Zulte Waregem were to represent Belgium in the Champions League qualifiers, seemingly oblivious to the concept of merit despite the fact that no club, no matter how illustrious its history, has an automatic right to occupy the top spots. Essevee have stuck up for the “little guy” and often outsmarted Belgium’s big guns. It was an extremely turbulent summer in Waregem. Junior Malanda broke his contract then returned on loan, Thorgan Hazard returned and tried to rule the roost and CEO Patrick Decuyper raised fears of a move to Antwerpen. Decuyper, who had said three years ago the club could challenge for the title within three years may have been dismissed with some humour but few were laughing at his behind-the-scenes manoeuvrings and at the end of August, he left the club. Rightly criticised, he was however right to point out the possibility of a precarious future for Zulte Waregem, who are surrounded by other top flight teams and his aim had been to ensure the club were fielding a team entirely comprised of its own youth players within a decade. Dave Whelan himself has also been known to ruffle a few feathers in the media in his time.
So far, the expected downfall of Zulte Waregem has not materialised. There’s no getting away from the fact they were outclassed by PSV in the qualifiers but all credit must go to the Eredivisie side who themselves had a very young and vibrant team, who played at a tempo foreign to most, if not all Belgian sides. The hardest departure to replace has not been Berrier (Thorgan Hazard has assumed the mantle of the main playmaker) or Leye (injured for the rest of the season – Habibou is a new man) but Jonathan Delaplace. The midfielder may not be getting a look in at Lille but he was the best in his position in Belgium last season, knitting the entire team together and seemingly having the knack of being in three places at once such was the dynamism he brought to his play.
Zulte Waregem have lost just once in the league – 5-2 in Genk last weekend and Hazard inspired them to an unforgettable 4-3 win over Anderlecht before the international break. However, what has been abundantly clear since the play-offs began is that their defence is no longer as reliable and that will be a concern for Dury, who knows that sloppiness at the back will be punished still more at Europa League level. Wigan will not be taken lightly despite their average start to the Championship season – look how Birmingham were able to compete with Club Brugge and Essevee are very pleased with the draw as they wanted an English team due to the incredibly high regard in which the Belgians hold English football. If they can get back to their winning formula of sensible game management, a solid defence and an ability to attack with directness, who’s to say they can’t emerge once more from the Europa League group stages?