Despite changes to the format this year, the league looks like being a battle between the usual candidates.
By Nicholas Harling in Brussels
The new league format might be somewhat controversial (with 16 clubs instead of 18 and a full fixture list scheduled for Boxing Day), and key players may have come and gone, but
the main prize still looks likely to be handed out to the usual recipients.
By persuading Laszlo Boloni to sign a new one-year contract, Standard appear to have given themselves every chance of capturing the championship for a third successive season. Anderlecht were the last to achieve the feat (between 1993 and 1995) but Standard – then playing under the guise of Royal Standard Club Liegeois – have to go all the way back to 1969-71 for their last trio of titles.
The club’s change of name in 1972 did not lead to any undue cause for celebration in Liege until the 1982 and 1983 seasons, when Standard were champions two years running, but then came a fallow quarter of a century until former national team goalkeeper Michel Preud’homme coached the club to a long overdue triumph in 2008.
Preud’homme’s subsequent departure for a similar post at Gent would possibly have had drastic repercussions but for Boloni’s undoubted capacity for maintaining morale in the dressing room.
The 56-year old Romanian proved just the right man to take up the reins as Standard withstood the challenge of Anderlecht, their eventual victims in last season’s two-legged play-off after the clubs had finished level on points.
A former international who was also a European Cup winner with Steaua Bucharest in 1986, Boloni must find a replacement for American defender Oguchi Onyewu if Standard are to remain on top. The 27-year-old, who was a key member of the USA team that reached the Confederations Cup Final in South Africa, has joined Milan on a free transfer after making 179 league appearances during his five years in Liege.
If Standard were dismayed to lose Onyewu, they were overjoyed to beat Porto to the signing of highly-rated midfielder Tiago Ronaldo from Guimares in Portugal. His arrival “was a real windfall”, according to Standard’s general director Pierre Francois, who added: “He fits perfectly with our policy of signing young talent. He is a player for the future.”
Also recruited on a similar two-year contract with a further year’s option is Auxerre midfielder Jonathan Mendes. Another intriguing new signing is Moussa Traore, a 19-year-old forward from Commune FC in Burkina Faso.
Standard’s closest challengers will again be Anderlecht, who have recalled Silvio Proto from his loan spell at Germinal Beerschot now that he has achieved international recognition in goal. Proto is a celebrated figure, not merely because he is one of the few goalscoring goalkeepers in the Belgian league, but because he is also believed to be the only practicing ventriloquist in the game!
Of the mauve and whites’ other newcomers, 19-year-old Senegalese attacking midfielder Cheikhou Kouyate returns after a year on loan at Kortrijk, while Czech defender Ondrej Mazuch joins on loan from Fiorentina with a option for a permanent deal. With highly promising Brazilian midfielder Reynaldo Dos Santos Silva being promoted from the reserves, Anderlecht seem to be looking to their youth policy for a return to former glories.
Preud’homme’s Gent are likely to be among the contenders, all the more so now that they have compensated for the loss of their captain, Costa Rica striker Bryan Ruiz, by spending the money they received from Twente in Holland on Stijn De Smet from Cercle Bruges. The midfielder, who has one cap to his name, has signed a five-year deal.
Club Brugge, who have replaced Jacky Mathijssen with Dutch coach Adrie Koster, may continue to endure a tough transition despite the signing of central defender Ryan Donk from AZ Alkmaar.
Genk, who have a new coach in Hein Vanhaezebrouck, will also be expected to chase the front runners but it is difficult to envisage other new coaches Georges Leekens, Stephane Demol and Miroslav Djukic managing anything remarkable with Kortrijk, Charleroi and Mouscron respectively.
Having narrowly missed out on the European places last season, Zutte Waregem, Westerlo and Lokeren will hope to push on, while Cercle Brugge and Mechelen – who sold striker Bjorn Vleminckx to NEC for £1.75million, making him the Dutch club’s record signing – will look to improve on their mid-table places last term.
Roeselare could struggle if new signing Collins John, the former Fulham striker, does not come up with the goals, as could Germinal Beerschot and promoted St Truiden.