mercoledì 4 maggio 2011

Frank Vercauteren's Genk starlets worthy Belgian champions

A home draw against Standard Liege in the last round of the Jupiler Pro League Playoff was all it took to crown Racing Genk Belgian champions for the third time in their history. The Limburg side finished the season level on 51 points with the Rouches, but were handed the title by virtue of finishing 15 points ahead of Standard in the regular season.

After a surprising start, with five wins from five games, Genk showed an unexpected solidity that kept them in the race for the title until the very end. A slump was widely predicted for coach Frank Vercauteren’s team in the second half of the season, but it failed to arrive as he expertly guided them forward. Genk topped the table for 18 of the 30 rounds in the regular campaign, before being dislodged from the top of the playoff table just once. All in all, it was superb season and caused eyes to be cast over the new Belgian champions’ team.

“This is an unexpected, but well-deserved title”, said a proud Vercauteren. For the former Belgian international (the former left winger appeared in Belgium’s fourth-placed side at the 1986 World Cup) the championship win offered a small measure of revenge against Anderlecht, the club that sacked him in 2007 after the coach had won the Jupiler League for the previous two seasons.

Vercauteren was appointed as Genk boss on 3rd December, 2009, with the Flemmish side struggling to emerge from the mid-table mediocrity they had slipped into in 2008, finishing 10th and 8th respectively. The coach’s first months were not easy. However, despite a disappointing 11th place in the regular season, Vercauteren led the club to victory in the playoff for a Europa League spot. In many ways, the chink of light was a sign that a new era had indeed begun.

Genk possess one of Belgium’s finest youth systems, as the recent breakthrough of players such as Steven Defour and Marvin Ogujimi can attest to. It is small wonder therefore that three of the key men in the club’s title win are products of the academy: Goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois, midfielder-cum-winger Kevin de Bruyne (both 19 years old) and striker Jelle Vossen (22 years old).

Courtois made his first team debut on 17th April, 2009, appearing against Gent and instantly showcasing his ability with a series of saves that earned the youngster the man of the match accolade. The then-16-year-old, who had begun the season as Genk’s sixth choice keeper, showed superb reflexes, drive and cold-blooded composure between the sticks; just two years later he was a regular. Courtois is the only Genk player not to have missed a single minute in the league’s 40 games this season, his impressive displays proving crucial to the side’s title win, even in the final match, where the shot-stopper pulled off two saves in the dying minutes.

Like Courtois, De Bruyne too played his first league game at a tender age, turning out at just 17 years old in the 2008/09 season against Charleroi. Moving from Gent’s youth academy (the winger played with the Buffalos for six years) to Genk’s own setup in 2005, De Bruyne is rightly considered one of the great hopes of Belgian football due to his technical and dribbling abilities combined with pinpoint passing and a powerful shot. The youngster is often deployed on the left flank, though he has often declared it not to be his favoured position. Cutting in from the flank, De Bruyne can often be lethal when shooting with his right foot – against Gent in the playoff phase he scored one of the Jupiler League’s best goals, striking a long range scorcher from close to the corner flag.

“De Bruyne has the same class as Johan Cruyff”, said Vercauteren, lavishing praise on his young talent. “He has the right mentality for the top of football too. However, he still has lots of things to learn. First of all, that football is a team sport.” De Bruyne finished the season with five goals and 13 assists, but more importantly with performances under his belt that have caused scouts across Europe to scribble his name in their notebooks.

Yet while De Bruyne is Genk’s top creator, the magic could not happen without striker Vossen. The Blizen-born hitman found the back of the net 20 times on the club’s way to the title, just behind Club Brugge man Ivan Perisic – with 22 goals – in the scoring charts. And Vossen’s rise came as something of a surprise at the Cristal Arena, with the 22-year-old having scored only 14 goals in the previous four seasons; last year was spent with Cercle Brugge on loan.

It took Vossen just 11 games this season to equal the number he had managed in his entire career. Last December, with 16 goals in 17 games, Vossen even had the second best goal average in all Europe’s leagues, just after Barcelona’s Lionel Messi, before being cruelly sidelined with a knee injury. His recovery time was though quick. “I was absolutely not surprised about that”, said Genk’s doctor Stijn Indeherberge. “I remember once he suffered a bad knee injury, that normally needs six months to recover. He did it in two and a half.” His reputation is such that the Belgian press have begun to label him “Vosserine”, a mixture of his name and the comic book hero Wolverine, a mutant X-Man superhero whose skeleton is composed of indestructible adamantium – a fictional metal alloy.

This is not the first time that Genk coach Vercauteren has played a key role in Vossen’s career. When, between April and October 2009, he was caretaker coach of the Belgian national team, he called up the striker for the Kirin Cup and played him against Chile and Japan respectively; the 54-year-old had always suspected Vossen had the talent.

The transfer market was crucial to Genk’s success too, with all the club’s newcomers (Anthony Vanden Borre, Nadson Ferreira, Kennedy Nwanganga and Liverpool loanee Chris Mavinga) becoming regulars either in the league or playoff phase. Nigerian striker Nwanganga, bought from Finnish outfit Inter Turku, played a vital role in the final game against Standard, scoring the goal that saw Genk proclaimed champions; it was the Flemmish side’s 80th goal in 40 games.

Vercauteren, whose contract has been extended until June 2013, must now spend a summer hoping the vultures do not steal his most prized talents away. It will be a nerve-wracking wait.

Fonte: Inside Futbol

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