Before Wisła Kraków take to the field on Thursday night ahead of their Europa League last-32 tie against Standard Liege, EKSTRAKLASAreview asked a few questions to a couple of experts to help get the low-down on The White Star’s Belgian opponents. Enter Chris Mayer and John Chapman…
EKSTRAKLASAreview: How has Standard’s Domestic season gone so far?
Chris Mayer: Surprising well considering they’ve had new ownership, a new manager and a refurbished team after key players were sold on (Axel Witsel, Steven Defour and Mehdi Carcela). They’ve been very impressive at home having gone unbeaten for almost a calendar year until this weekend, beaten by league leaders Anderlecht. I’ve been pleasantly surprised they are still in the hunt as many thought this would be a transition year. That being said, away form has been decidedly dodgy until recently.
John Chapman: They are currently lying 4th, 12 points behind Anderlecht. That’s better than it looks when you consider they lost Witsel, Defour and Carcela in the summer. It was said to be a season in transition but it’s proved to be slightly better than that. A few new players have come in and several have looked good. Standard’s main problem is their away form; before the winter break they had only won once away. They’ve won a couple since.
How did they qualify from their Europa League group?
JC: Their EL form has been better than league form! They were unbeaten in a group with Hannover, Copenhagen and Vorskla Potava. I saw them at home against Copenhagen and they were excellent. New signing Venezuelan Luis Seijas looked a world beater that night. On travels in Europe, they’ve been well-organised – actually only conceding one goal in their six games.
CM: Here’s where Standard have impressed me most. I thought they may struggle on a separate front but in fact did it with relative ease. Four wins out of six – the biggest for me was beating Copenhagen away. Despite some injuries to key players, a lot of the younger guys have stepped up.
Who are the top players to watch out for?
CM: The man between the sticks, Sinan Bolat is in my opinion the best keeper in the Belgian league and he’s also been in contention for Turkey’s No.1 shirt. Can make some rash decisions at times, but good shot stopper. Meme Tchite leads the line for Standard, he’s been influential in their season as ever. Good all-round striker. Another in form is Geoffrey Mujangi Bia, formerly of Wolves, who’s had a great run on the right-hand side, scoring some great goals and assisting the team too.
JC: Bolat is a top class keeper, rarely makes a mistake. He’s also often said to be on his way to a Turkish club. Brazilian Felipe is a decent centre back and Sebastien Pocognoli is probably the best left back in Jupiler league. French midfielder William Vainqueur usually runs midfield; can be a bit headstrong, but a good all-round player. Meme Tchite is an experienced and prolific goal scorer, supported by two young strikers – Gohi Cyriac and Michy Batshuayi (only 18 and a real find).
What expectations do the fans and the Belgian media have of the tie?
CM: The fans demand a lot from their club, Standard are one of the biggest teams in the country really. As for the media, I think they think that Standard can do it. Their Europa league form as previously mentioned has been terrific and they’ll be wanting to get as far as they can – beating Wisla could set up a Belgian clash and I’m sure they’ll be eager to be there. I’m slightly more hesitant because I know how tough Poland grounds can be to go to. Having said that, Sclessin provides an intimidating atmosphere too.
JC: On the whole I think both media and fans would expect Standard to go through. Standard fans are a very confident lot, and certainly the atmosphere in Liege is the best in Belgium.
Any weak points that Wisła can exploit?
CM: I would have said the defence in general as it’s a bit makeshift at the moment. Felipe and Kanu, the centre back pairing have a great understanding, whilst Laurent Ciman and Sebastien Pocognoli are both playing well. They did play Anderlecht at weekend and overexerted themselves so could be tired. I’m going to say Standard’s central midfield. William Vainqueur is imperious, but not 100x convinced on Yoni Buyens (if he plays). Riga seems to be rotating that area a fair bit, not all entirely his fault, so the midfield battle could entirely be down to Vainqueur.
JC: Quite a young side and not particularly experienced. They will also miss the captain Jelle Van Damme who is out with a long-term injury. He is a great motivator and leader on the pitch.
Who do you think will progress?
CM: When the draw was made, I thought Wisła. But as time has wore on, I think Standard will. Not sure how the Polish team will cope after winter break (correct me if wrong) and Standard have been in good enough form and want to go far. Gotta back ’em.
JC: I take Standard to go through.
A huge thanks to both of our Belgian experts for their help.