Belgian Jupiler Pro League 2012/2013 preview
British interest in Belgium football is the highest it has been in many years, owing to the conveyor belt of talent heading abroad, most notably to England. While the Belgian Jupiler Pro League cannot lay claim to having played a significant role in the development of Premier League newcomers Eden Hazard and Jan Vertonghen, Kevin De Bruyne, Romelu Lukaku and Vincent Kompany all took their first steps in their homeland.
Kompany and Lukaku left Anderlecht behind and it’s with the champions in Brussels we must begin. Although last season’s title-winning squad has remained intact (though Belgian Golden Shoe winner Matias Suarez looks set to join CSKA Moscow), new coach John van den Brom arrives from Vitesse promising a more fluent and attacking style of play, often lacking under his predecessor Ariël Jacobs. One of five Dutch-born coaches in the top flight, he must guide Belgium’s most successful club to the Champions League group stages for the first time since 2006-07. They remain the favourites this year, despite the defensive frailties they displayed in last week’s 3-2 Supercup win over Lokeren.
The arrival of foreign coaches in particular has been a source of some disquiet in Belgium but this trend also manifests itself in the makeup of the playing staff. Of the 433 players registered for this opening weekend, 217 are foreign, the first-time non-Belgians have constituted a majority. Standard Liège have joined Anderlecht in going down the Dutch route, appointing former FC Groningen and SC Heerenveen boss Ron Jans. Well aware of les Rouches’ iconic status in French-speaking Wallonia, he quickly moved to win over the passionate, if sceptical fanbase by quickly grasping the local language and introducing more open training sessions. The far from universally popular owner Roland Duchâtelet has invested in the squad, with Marvin Ogunjimi, Astrit Adjarevic and French under-21 international Frédéric Bulot promising much and not just in the short-term either.
However, the most potent threat to Anderlecht’s crown will have to come from Club Brugge. Without a league title since 2005, new chairman Bart Verhaeghe has not been averse to delving into his deep pockets over the last two seasons. What Club Brugge will most certainly not win is a popularity contest. Their poaching of nomadic Belgium coach Georges Leekens in May stunned the entire country and they weakened rivals KAA Gent and Standard by signing Jesper Jørgensen and Meme Tchité respectively. Runners-up last season, Blauw-Zwart have moved to strengthen with the leadership of centreback Jim Larsen from Rosenborg and Ivan Trickovski from APOEL Nicosia. The Macedonian forward impressed with the Cypriot side in the Champions League and is the Nabil Dirar replacement Leekens’ predecessor Christoph Daum had yearned for. The pressure is on Leekens to deliver despite doubts he is best working with average players and a track record, which has brought just one league title in over 25 years (with Club Brugge in 1990).
De Bruyne’s old club Racing Genk, who have managed three titles since 1999, have sought to invest the money from his transfer (and that of Thibaut Courtois) in the hope of challenging once more. They finished the previous campaign well and have since strengthened with goalscoring midfielder Julien Gorius and the very promising young French attacker Steven Joseph-Monrose. Mario Been is a likeable and underrated coach ; despite some early defensive injuries, his side are the dark horses in the title race, provided they keep hold of prolific strike duo Jelle Vossen and Christian Benteke.
The final member of the “big five”, KAA Gent, deserve success as they are the best run club in the country. Trond Sollied is a proven winner but has been handicapped by a string of key departures, such as Jørgensen and Slovenian striker Zlatan Ljubijankic. They should not miss Yassine El Ghanassy a great deal though due to his inconsistency. Marcel Gecov, who never broke through at Fulham, adds midfield bite to a team still crying out for a prolific goalscorer.
Elsewhere, cup winners Lokeren have quality throughout and are a good bet to return to the top six but will be challenged by 1988 Uefa Cup winners KV Mechelen, who have made a number of astute signings. Antwerp-based outfit Beerschot are looking to build under new coach Adrie Koster, who will be looking to deliver the same attacking football he did at Club Brugge. Enzo Scifo begins his first full season with Mons and the chaos never stops with relegation favourites Charleroi. Beveren are back in the top flght in the form of merger club Waasland-Beveren but they too will have a tough time.
Predictions are complicated by the three-tier play-off system. The top six after 30 games see their points halved and play each other home and away. The next eight are split into two groups and start from scratch – the two group winners then meeting for the right to play the fourth-placed side in Play-Off 1 and the final Europa League spot. Relegation is more complicated still. The bottom two play each other in a five-match series, with fifteenth starting with a three-point advantage. The loser is relegated and the winner goes into more play-offs with three sides from the second tier.
Runners-up: Club Brugge
Play Off 1: Racing Genk, Standard Liège, KAA Gent, Lokeren
Relegation zone: Charleroi, Waasland-Beveren
Players to watch:
Dennis Praet (Anderlecht): The best young talent still playing in Belgium. Van den Brom has pledged to give the midfielder a chance and his goal in the Supercup hopefully provided a glimpse of more to come from the 18-year old.
Astrit Adjarevic (Standard Liège): Arrives from Sweden with a superb left foot and it is to be hoped Jans will play him alongside former Newcastle man Nacho Gonzalez in midfield.
Christian Brüls (KAA Gent): He will need to build on a successful first season with De Buffalo’s in order to provide the cutting edge in attack and compensate for no out-and-out goalscorer.
Jim Larsen (Club Brugge): Rosenborg fans were loathed to see him leave. Tall, strong, dominant in the air and a true leader, he has everything to be the elusive partner to Ryan Donk in central defence.
Ivan Lendric (Zulte Waregem): The young Croatian striker will be looking to succeed where Everton forward Nikica Jelavic did not, with the club going out of their way to ensure history does not repeat itself.
Logan Bailly (OH Leuven): Once touted for big things, he suffered a dramatic loss of form at Borussia Mönchengladbach and had his off-field problems as well. Now finds himself at a side hoping to avoid second-season syndrome.
Gary Niblock is a Belgian football writer, who has contributed in the past to Goal.com and TalkSport. He fell in love with Belgium football when he went to study in Louvain-la-Neuve but remains a committed neutral.
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