There's something of a buzz in European football around a batch a starlets coming through for Belgium. The 2012 European Championships may come a little early, but exciting times await. Chris Mayer looks at a Belgian club harnessing the best of youth.
The start to this year’s Belgian Pro League has injected a little bit of excitement into the competition. For several years, the trinity of Anderlecht, Standard Liege and Club Brugge were sitting pretty at the summit, looking to the teams below them goading them to challenge. Finally, one team has answered the call, KRC Genk who were coincidently the last team outside of the Big Four to lift the Jupiler Pro League.
Last year’s revolutionary and perplexing change to the format revitalised a formulaic league. Trying to explain it would be akin to Jamie Redknapp providing a background to the theory of relativity - you would leave more confused than when you started.
In a nutshell, and missing out several small intricacies such as Mechelen can’t play Gent on a full moon on the last Friday of the month, the 16 teams of the Jupiler Pro League play each other twice then split into play-off zones in March.
The top six fight for the title, the teams from 7th to 14th play for the chance at a Europa League playoff and the club at the bottom of the pile are relegated. The unlucky sods in 15th enter a play-off series with the 2nd tier. Now it seems that Belgium wanted to copy off its good neighbour Holland, but clearly, someone had too many glasses of the Pinot Blanc and went crazy with the system. This also saw the Belgian FA go against the grain and get rid of the winter break to get as many matches in as possible, a very unpopular move with the fans.
Unfortunately, for the league directors, things didn’t turn out to be straightforward last year. Mouscron’s Christmas present was bankruptcy and they were excluded. Postponements happened left, right and centre, mainly down to snow causing logistical nightmares. Some teams such as Standard Liege completely ignored the playoffs, opting to focus on a Europa League run and thus don’t get to repeat the feat this year having slumped to 9th . However, one team escaped from the chaos and put together a fabulous undefeated streak.
Genk haven’t lost since March domestically, a run of 22 matches. A big reason for this is a focus on nurturing players. Case in point: Jelle Vossen. Before this season, he was out on loan more times than James Vaughan. Except no offence to the youngest scorer in Premier League history, Vossen managed to make an impact upon recall. This season sees him top the goal scoring charts with 13 goals in 10 games, his nearest rival, Ronald Vargas of Club Brugge being on 7.
Within that haul of goals, he’s amassed six braces in all competitions, most impressively a double away in Porto that was ultimately a consolation since Genk had lost 3-0 at home in the first leg. It’s fair to argue that this result may have helped Genk in the long run. No distractions across the continent, whilst Anderlecht, Club Brugge and Gent flounder against superior opponents. It’s fair to say it’s been at least a factor in their performances this season, with such a young squad.
Back to Vossen. The 21 year-old ‘s form has seen several Premier League scouts keep tabs on his development, with the Daily Mail linking Aston Villa and Everton with a move for him even though Vossen signed a 5-year deal last month. If he keeps up his sensational record, it’s possible he could link up with either Moyes or Houllier, but it would be a gamble considering the difference in the leagues.
But it’s not just about Jelle Vossen, several other young players are garnering interest. Kevin De Bruyne is a supremely gifted midfielder, contributing heavily to the streak and scoring 3 goals this season. He links-up with Vossen regularly and this caught the eye of Belgian national coach Georges Leekens giving them both their debuts this year.
Genk manager and one of Belgium’s best wingers ever, Franky Vercauteren has balanced his squad well. Vossen’s main strike partner is Israeli international Elyaniv Barda, whose contribution has also been impressive, scoring 5 in 7 games. South African international Anele Ngongca is a rock at centre-back. He was part of the World Cup squad and claims Manchester City are looking at him, we’ll see if that materialises.
This weekend’s performance of the side suggests they have the resolve to come back from early setbacks. Two goals down away to Mechelen, and well truly rattled, Genk came back with a lovely finish from Barda and a header from Eric Matoukou, which deflected heavily off Kenny Van Hoevelen to deceive keeper Olivier Renard. It was a fiercely contested game, a game that Genk should have won after Fabien Camus rattled the bar with an audacious free-kick late in the game. Still a valuable point for Genk as nearest challengers Anderlecht were stunned 5-1 by a Standard Liege second half masterclass. The result angered the Les Mauves faithful, who spent Sunday evening blocking the team bus from exiting the Stade Maurice Dufrasne car park.
The average age of the entire Genk squad is just under 21, but the real coming of age moment could be this month. Home games against Standard Liege and Anderlecht will really test the mettle of these young upstarts following on from the international break.
Vercauteren’s men are 5 points clear at the top ahead of Anderlecht. The last team to beat Genk were Les Mauves, and the two meet on Halloween. A genuine thriller perhaps?
You can follow Chris on Twitter @ChrisMayerv1 and read more from him here