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The kids are alright; Belgium’s young stars aim to rebuild Pro League’s tarnished reputation

Belgium is a country renowned for the quality of its chocolate, waffles and beer, and with good reason, but sadly its football is often overlooked. At first glance it’s not difficult to see why. The league is structured in such a way that by comparison a David Lynch film seems straightforward. For the 2010/11 season the number of teams has been reduced from 18 to 16, resulting in a 30 game regular season. A horrendously complicated system of post season play offs, presumably dreamt up by some football hating evil genius, then determines everything from league champions, to European places and relegation. But if you can get your head around this madness a competitive and unpredictable league awaits you, with passionate crowds and many talented young players on show.

Standard Liege’s ‘Inferno’ Ultra group put on a show

In fact earlier this year in his column for the The Times respected football writer Gabriele Marcotti speculated that Belgium could be dark horses for the 2014 World Cup, such is the strength of talent coming through. Young players like the distinctive Marouane Fellaini, the marauding Thomas Vermaelen, Fulham new boy Moussa Dembele, the superbly named Eden Hazard (already dubbed by some as ‘the new Christiano Ronaldo’) and Ajax bruiser Jan Vertonghen all began their careers with Belgian sides before moving on to Europe’s wealthier leagues. It remains difficult for Belgian sides to retain their young stars, but several promising youngsters still ply their trade in the Pro League including Romelu Lukaku, who at the tender age of 17 can already be found leading the line for Anderlecht.

Last season RSC Anderlecht were rampant in the Pro League losing only three times in the regulation season, and going undefeated in the play offs, eventually claiming the title by 18 points from Gent. Lukaku was the league’s top scorer with 15, and crucially for RSCA he has shunned the advances of Europe’s elite, stating his desire to remain with Anderlecht and experience Champions League football with them. Midfield dynamo Mbark Boussoufa has also committed to the club, despite widely reported interest from Spain, Germany and England, and signed a new contract making him the highest paid player in Belgium. Boussoufa is Anderlecht’s playmaker and has been crowned the Pro League player of the year for the last two seasons. Defensive lynchpin Jelle Van Damme moved to Wolves over the summer, but in Czech international Ondrej Mazuch manager Ariel Jacobs seems to have found a like for like replacement. Keeping hold of Lukaku and Boussoufa this summer was a huge coup, and with Lukaku’ s presence up front, and Boussoufa’s spark in the middle, complimenting a well drilled and talented squad it is hard to look past RSCA for league glory again this year. Champions League football will have to wait for Lukaku and his colleagues though as Anderlecht were eliminated by Partizan Belgrade in qualifying.

Teenage powerhouse Romelu Lukaku has lit up the Pro League

Last years runners up Gent were also eliminated in Champions League qualifying as they crashed out to Dynamo Kiev 6-1 on aggregate, leaving Belgium without a representative in the group stages. Gent overachieved last year and are in for a tougher ride this season after losing their inspirational manager Michel Preud’homme to Dutch champions FC Twente. Preud’homme transformed Gent into an energetic attacking side last season and led Gent to their highest league finish since 1955. A run in the UEFA cup will be a good experience for Gent this year and should inspire them to achieve a Europa League spot again this time out.

Racing Genk are a team on the up, and in Jelle Vossen they seem to have another unearthed another young Belgian star. Vossen has already managed 13 goals in 9 games this term, but crucially Genk don’t need to rely on his goals. They are an attacking side who have already found the back of the net 29 times in just 9 games this season. This firepower should see them push Anderlecht all the way, though I suspect Genk will just miss out on the title, despite the addition of Belgian international Anthony Vanden Borre who has a point to prove after unsuccessful moves to Serie A and the Premier League.

Another player with a point to prove this season is Standard Liege’s Alex Witsel. His horror tackle last August on Anderlecht’s Marcin Wasilewski was broadcast around the world and earned Witsel an 11 match ban, later reduced to 8 games on appeal. Witsel and his compatriot Steven Defour form a strong midfield partnership for Standard, but the loss of last seasons top scorer Milan Jovanovic to Liverpool will be felt this season, and realistically Standard are unlikely to challenge for the title, but should have enough to claim a Europa League spot.

Witsel’s horror tackle sparked controversy last season

Of the mid-table sides Club Brugge, with their star man Maxime Lestienne, and KV Mechelen are the most likely to spring a surprise. KV Mechelen are a superb story having won the European Cup Winners Cup back in 1988 before being declared bankrupt and relegated to the Belgian third tier in 2003. They returned to the top flight in 2007 and remain a popular side capable of causing an upset.

Newly promoted Eupen will enjoy their first appearance in Belgium’s top flight, but sadly are favourites for the drop. Lierse, who came up with Eupen, are also likely to struggle despite recent investment from Egyptian businessman Maged Samy which saved the club from bankruptcy.

Last season Belgian football hit the headlines for all the wrong reasons. Racist chanting from the Flemish fans of Gent towards the French speaking Walloon side of Tubize during a league encounter went unpunished by the Belgian F.A., drawing wide spread condemnation from officials and fans alike. This unsavoury incident, along with the Witsel tackle and the dramatic collapse of Mouscron, who after being declared bankrupt were removed from the league midway through the regular season, means the Pro League needs to restore its image this year, and with Lukaku and his young compatriots on show it has every chance of doing so.

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