Premier League clubs are circling around the top players of Belgium’s Jupiler League. In the last six months, Belgian football has become sexy – a remarkable achievement. Some players have already moved to the Premier League directly from Belgian football, but it’s risky. For every success (Marouane Fellaini) there is a failure (Jelle Van Damme). Most of the players here could not immediately command a place in the top Premier League clubs, and that’s a dilemma for buyers and sellers. With the transfer window opening soon, here’s my look at who is ‘Big in Belgium’.
Kevin De Bruyne (19); is a diamond in Genk’s midfield. Along with Courtois and Jelle Vossen, he was one of the main reasons why Racing Genk became champions. He’s strong, intelligent and he’s been the architect behind many of the goals scored by Marvin Ogunjimi and Vossen. His mother lives in the UK and the Premiership could be his natural home.
Axel Witsel (22); he’s one of two Standard Liège players to remain from the 2009 championship-winning side. Player of the Year back in 2008, he’s now a much better all-round midfield performer. Witsel was often in Steven Defour’s shadow but he’s emerged recently as a leader in his own right. Best known in the UK for his horrific tackle on Marcin Wasilewski, Witsel is not that type of player. His game suffered – as did Wasilewski’s – for almost a year. Now he’s back and performing like the class act he is, expect to see him at Arsenal or Liverpool next season.
Thibaut Courtois (19); came into the Racing Genk side at the beginning of the season as the only fit keeper available. He’s played every game since and last week his saves in the dying minutes of the match with Standard Liege made Genk champions. He’s reputedly been watched by Manchester United and rumours circulate that Chelsea have made a firm offer. Courtois stands 6’ 4 ½” and he’s a commanding presence in the area. Belgium has a rich history of keepers – Michel Preud’homme and Jean-Marie Pfaff to name but two – and it would be no surprise if Courtois was one day mentioned alongside those names.
Abdou Camara (19); has sprung to prominence in the last couple of months. Standard Liege’s Senegalese enforcer replaced the injured Steven Defour and has been a tower of strength in front of the back four. Camara even stayed in the side when Defour returned, with Axel Witsel being pushed further forward. This writer sees a lot of the young Patrick Vieira at Arsenal in Camara; he could go all the way and is definitely one for the future. Another player Arsenal would do well to extensively scout.
Steven Defour (23); was a regular with Genk when he was 17 and Standard Liege’s captain at the age of 19. Defour is made for the Premier League. Sadly, he’s had a string of injuries in recent years and that could earn him a reputation as being injury-prone. That’s unfair as he’s a leader, a fighter and a winner. Given the situation, he may have to wait another year before any transfer is realised.
In the last six months, Belgian football has become sexy – a remarkable achievement. Some players have already moved to the Premier League directly from Belgian football, but it’s risky.
Jelle Vossen (22); was a player that Genk tried to unload at the beginning of the season. Rehabilitated by Franky Vercauteren, he went on a brilliant run of goal scoring that took Genk to the top of the table. He seems to be heading to Serie A but he’s quick and strong and a natural goal scorer. He’s only had one good season though so it might be better to see how he does next year.
Paolo Henrique (22); if you type Paulo Henrique into Google, you get a Portuguese singer and choreographer. This young Brazilian is not on the football radar yet but he has found his form at Westerlo – 18 goals this season – after three years at Heerenveen. He’s said to be on his way to Standard Liege or Club Brugge; he needs to confirm his talents – strength, speed and a eye for goal; one to watch.
Yaya Soumahoro (21); the Ivory Coast winger arrived in the Jupiler League by a circuitous route, via Bangkok. He was a cult figure with Muangthong United before a move to Europe and Ghent. He’s one of the cleverest players in the league and at the moment he looks more suited to the Premiership than – Manchester City target - Yassine El Ghanassy. A pacey winger, Soumahoro lost both parents when young and is – as they say – on a journey.
Jelle Van Damme (27); left Anderlecht for Wolves at the beginning of the season. Seemingly tailor-made for the Premiership, the move was a failure. Played out of position, his wife (Kim Clijsters’ sister) did not settle in Wolverhampton and the birth of his first child meant that the family wanted to return home. Without him – on and off the field - Anderlecht were not the same team; after he moved back to Belgium with Standard Liege, they started their excellent run of victories. Van Damme should act as a warning – it’s not just a matter of football.
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