With arguably the toughest tie of the three Polish sides remaining in Europe, 2011/12 champions Śląsk Wrocław face a touch double-header against seeded side Club Brugge of Belgium. EKSTRAKLASAreview asked Belgian football expert Chris Mayer to talk us through the Blauw-Zwart team.
Despite being one of Belgium’s ‘big five’ and holding a impressive European record for a Belgian side, Club Brugge fans have endured a relative drought in silverware in the past decade. Their last domestic league title came in 2005, and the seasons in between have seen plenty of near misses or failures, depending on whether your glass is half empty or full.
Following two seasons of heavy investment and managerial uncertainty, the Blauw-Zwart hierarchy have comparatively tightened their belts this summer. In what will be coach Juan Carlos Garrido’s first full season at the club, marquee signings have been shunned in favour of promoting youth players into the first team.
In Club Brugge’s opening game against Charleroi, Garrido’s hand was forced in some respects due to defensive injuries, but the Spaniard chose to give youngsters Brandon Mechele (20) and Birger Verstraete (19) starts at the back. It was a rude awakening for the two, who struggled to deal with David Pollet and Giuseppe Rossini in the early going. The inexperienced quartet was completed by the comparatively ancient Tom Høgli (29), playing an unfavoured centre-back role, and Laurens De Bock (20), the impressive left-back who joined Club in January from Lokeren. He’s spent a lot of time on the sidelines after picking up three red cards in 11 appearances last term. Śląsk could well make the most of this unaccustomed back four, as they haven’t yet garnered a lot playing time together, and were, on occasion, shaky against Les Zebres. The insertion of Costa Rican centre-back Oscar Duarte (24) should help lighten the load though
Also making his first appearance was highly rated Australian goalkeeper Mat Ryan (21), who joined from the Central Coast Mariners in the window. Although never really tested to his maximum, Ryan did show important decision making, collecting expertly and punching clear when needed. You’d suspect that the European tie on Thursday marks his toughest test yet for the side and he’ll need to be as confident once more.
On Friday night, the defence weren’t helped the harsh exclusion of the re-debuting Timmy Simons, the 36-year old defensive midfielder, who has over 93 caps for the national side. Usually calm and collected, the elder statesmen was deemed to have studded Ederson’s ankle, which the referee cited as dangerous in his match report. His departure left Club Brugge with 10 men for over 70 minutes, meaning a real slog was on their hands. Fortunately, former Spurs midfielder Jonathan Blondel (29) coped well with the pressure, and the pairing of Simons and Blondel together could be too fierce for the Polish side to handle.
Despite losing a man, Club Brugge held the ball confidently, and had the lion’s share of possession. Garrido likes his side to keep the ball, with short sharp passes and the midfield is more than capable of obliging. This is mostly down to the cultured Israeli midfielder Lior Refaelov who provides the flair to Blondel/Simons’ grit. Refaelov can at times go missing in games.
Blondel capped his performance with a stunning swerving strike to seal the 2-0 victory against Charleroi. The other goal came from Chinese player Shangyuan Wang, who was making his competitive debut for the side, with another long distance scorcher in the 66th minute. This is one danger Śląsk will have to be weary of as more than a few Club Brugge players are capable of letting rip.
The most valuable player in the bunch is undoubtedly winger Maxime Lestienne. His career development was initially stunted, as youth club Mouscron went out of business. Club Brugge signed him in 2010 but it was only last season when the intuitive Kortrijk-born player broke through, after being on the sidelines during Christoph Daum’s spell as boss.
Lestienne is the real driving force of the side; quick, educated feet and capable of magical moments in the playoffs. Countless times Lestienne broke down the right, before cutting inside and then unleashing a curling effort into the bottom corner. If Śląsk don’t have a plan to counteract his involvement, Lestienne will likely run riot. It’s just his way.
The only big signing to date for Garrido in the off-season has been Tom De Sutter from big rivals Anderlecht, as a replacement for the prolific Carlos Bacca who has joined Sevilla. While this might seem like a big coup, in truth, the 29-year old forward had found himself in a corner in Brussels, fleetingly used and on a large contract.
Club Brugge is his chance to prove his worth. Although he only played half an hour against Charleroi, replacing Eidur Gudjohnsen, De Sutter should be match fit for this one, and Club Brugge certainly need him to be. The Icelander looks a spent unit, incapable of scoring, so De Sutter must hit the ground running.
There is a concern that if De Sutter and Gudjohnsen can’t find the net, Club Brugge might struggle to score. Keep an eye out for Boli Bolingoli Mbombo, the 18-year old cousin of Romelu Lukaku who was banging the goals in during pre-season. A cameo here and he could stake his place in the side.
Garrido will likely play a variant of 4-2-3-1 against Wroclaw, with De Sutter as the lone striker, if he is match fit. The support from Lestienne and Refaelov are crucial if Club Brugge want to win the fixture, and important for Śląsk to nullify. One plus point for the Polish side is that Victor Vazquez, formerly a striker partner to Lionel Messi at La Masia, will miss the game due to an ankle knock.
Chris Mayer is a Belgian football writer, formerly at TheBelgianWaffle.com, and now over at Benefoot.net. He can be found on Twitter at @TheBelgianWffle.