So tomorrow night we entertain RSC Anderlecht in what is undoubtedly our most important game so far of the season.
Anything other than losing by three goals or more will see us into the last 32 of the Europa League.
If we can get over the line then this will be our first time in Europe after Christmas since finishing runners-up to Barcelona in our Champions League group back in 2012.
There’s no doubt this was our primary aim going in.
When the perennial FFP breachers PSG along with Bavarian giants Bayern Munich came out of the hat from Pots 2 and 1 respectively any of hope of reaching the last 16 was lost. Both of those clubs, the Parisians in particular, are genuine contenders to win the whole thing and so they should be after having spent the GDP of a small country to assemble their squads.
We’ve been somewhat put to the sword, and that’s putting it mildly, against Neymar, Cavani and co from Paris and were also lucky to escape from southern Germany against Bayern with only a 3-0 loss. However the 3-0 away victory over Anderlecht and stirring display in an unlucky 2-1 home defeat to the Germans has created cause for optimism that domestic invincibility – now sitting at 67 games unbeaten – can be transferred into results on the continent.
The Europa League is our level.
I’m not even going to say ‘unfortunately’ because I don’t think it is.
The money being thrown around now by the top end Champions League clubs is as absurd as it is immoral. When the already nonsensical world transfer fee of £89 million was completely blown out of the water by PSG’s Qatari owners sanctioning the £200m purchase of Brazilian playboy Neymar Jnr from Barcelona last summer it was clear that all sense of rationale and prudence had gone off of a cliff and that now the clubs truly did have more power than UEFA who’s so-called ‘Financial Fair Play’ rules were duly cast aside.
Anyway, that’s an article for another day.
Back to the matter at hand and that is, of course, us against Anderlecht.
It was with great interest I read a piece by Phil Gordon in The Herald yesterday where our Belgian opponents were described as being’ in chaos’. Whilst they certainly have issues with their fans behaviour which makes The Green Brigade’s pyrotechnic affrays look like a Sunday morning coffee club as well as the news that longtime owner Roger Vanden Stock has put the club up for sale I think Phil is somewhat clutching at straws with the use of the term ‘chaos’.
It’s on the pitch where it really matters.
Indeed that’s all that matters.
And on the pitch, Anderlecht have fairly turned around their fortunes since we last met them and they sat seventh in the league after a disastrous start to the season that saw manager René Weiler sacked. Despite guiding the biggest club in Belgium to a Jupiler Pro League and Supercup double as well as reaching last season’s Europa League quarter-finals – where they were only eliminated 3-2 on aggregate by an extra time goal against Manchester United – the precarious of nature of employment as a football manager was exposed once again when Weiler got his jotters in the wake of a 3-0 Champions League group stage opener loss to Bayern which came on the back of two wins, two draws and two losses in the opening six rounds of league games.
The temporary management team that took over oversaw our visit to the Belgian capital that resulted in a clinical 3-0 hammering back on the 29th of September and were soon replaced on the 3rd of October by the veteran Belgian club football manager Hein Vanhaezebrouck.
So far he’s clocked up six wins from eight games, with one draw and only one loss.
They are also unbeaten in their last six with five wins and their 2-1 win over Lokeren on Saturday was their third straight league victory.
The goals have also been flowing under Vanhaezebrouck with 17 going in so far and his charges have climbed up to third in the table.
Still way off leaders Club Brugge who sit 7 points ahead of them at the summit on 41 points, but comfortably ahead of fourth-placed Sint-Truidense by 8 points.
To be honest the league placings don’t really matter that much just as long as you finish in the top six, after which you enter into a mini-league Championship play-off but anyway it’s at least an indicator of form.
In the Champions League Anderlecht, like ourselves, have proven to be fodder for PSG in particular who dismissed them 4-0 at home and 5-0 at the Parc des Princes. Their games against Bayern have also been nearly identical to ours with a resounding 3-0 loss on the road and a somewhat unfortunate 2-1 loss at home where the shocking state of Anderlecht’s pitch proved a genuine leveller.
So that’s the form guide at least.
But hold on their is one result that does bear some weight that I haven’t yet included which probably gives the most genuine insight into the general feeling of unhappiness that pervades around the Constant Vanden Stock Stadium.
In amongst all the league action, they were also eliminated from the national cup 1-0 at home to Standard Liège last Wednesday evening in a game where the home support showed their dissatisfaction by invading the away end and removing a banner erected by the Liège fans as well as raining down beer bottles on the opposition players and management team. Phil claimed in his piece that Anderlecht were actually the holders but that’s not true.
They were eliminated last year by Sporting Charleroi on penalties in the seventh round so I presume he was getting confused with this terms season-opening Super Cup victory.
The truth is that the national cup is of little importance to Anderlecht who have dominated the league competition in most decades since the late 1940’s racking up 34 titles in the process whilst simultaneously only winning the national cup 9 times.
So the ire of the fans was purely down to the general malaise which they believe has enveloped their club.
During the summer they spent €15 million on players including midfielder Sven Kums from Watford and Polish striker Lukasz Teodorczyk who made his loan move from Dynamo Kyiv permanent. Kums got himself sent off 11 minutes into the away game at Bayern and has been a disappointment on the whole whilst the Pole has scored a mere 3 goals in 20 games having found the net on 30 occasions in 53 games last season.
A pretty staggering drop-off in form by any standard.
In the opposite direction went €40 million worth of talent with star man Youri Tielemans going to Monaco for €19 million alone.
Exciting Ghanian internationalist winger Frank Acheampong also departed for China after four years of service.
To say the least, their replacements have been underwhelming and when your team are struggling no support is satisfied with a €25 million surplus on transfer dealings.
Another part of the fans frustrations comes from the poor recent displays of record signing Nicolae Stanciu.
They pushed the boat out for him in the summer of 2016 spending nearly €10 million to acquire his services. So far this season the Romanian has weighed in with one goal and two assists from 15 games and has been generally written off by the Belgian press.
The one man we do have to look out for though is striker Henry Onyekuru.
He’s found the back of the net 8 times in 16 league matches this term since a season-long loan move from Everton. Last season he scored 24 goals in 41 games for Jupiler Pro League side Eupen. He’s pretty much the only offensive player in any kind of form for the Belgian champions at the moment and is definitely a top prospect.
One could link all of their problems of course to a pretty unwelcome elephant in the room when it comes to Anderlecht.
That being that 75-year-old long-standing owner Roger Vanden Stock has put the club up for sale.
This is pretty big news considering that the stadium is named after his father and that the Vanden Stock’s have had a controlling interest in the club for around 40 years. He wanted to keep it a secret but in this day and age such desires usually prove impossible and such was the case here.
His secret having been leaked the board revealed there are four potential buyers. One of them is local construction magnate Paul Ghyesens who claims to have made a verbal offer of €100 million and that if the board don’t accept he’ll sue them into the ground. He sounds keen at least.
Tomorrow night Anderlecht will have to come out all guns blazing and hope we oblige them by capitulating.
We should have quite a game in store.
It’s strange in that I feel like I’ve been waiting for this game for over two months now ever since we beat them by such an impressive margin on their own patch. It was clear after the first group game that we were likely going to be completely outgunned by the top two and the matches against them since have almost felt like an inconvenience with the home match against Bayern proving to be the only one where we produced a stellar performance and could have got something.
Now it’s finally here and hopefully, we can add to Anderlecht’s woes and give us all an early Christmas present that we’ve all been aware has been sitting up at the back of mum and dad’s wardrobe for months just begging to be finally brought out on the big day.
Paul Cassidy is looking forward to the game tomorrow … but will not be taking a victory for granted.