BY MARK GODFREY
In the late summer of 2008, both sides of Stanley Park were made to sweat on their participation in the European competition they’d worked so damn hard for over the previous season; the cash dripping Champions League in the case of Liverpool and the booby prize of the UEFA Cup for Everton. One of them achieved their goal, but only by the skin of their teeth, while the other was taught some jarring football lessons.
While Belgium as a whole has a proud history of producing some excellent individuals and the Belgian national team has sporadically impressed, the country’s clubs have rarely threatened the long established pecking order when it comes to the European stage. Club Brugge belied their status in the mid-70s to reach a European Cup and UEFA Cup final; the Anderlecht side of the early 80s won a UEFA Cup and were within a penalty shoot-out of retaining the trophy; and KV Mechelen came from virtual obscurity to pocket the long defunct Cup Winners Cup in 1988. Since then, however, times have been pretty barren.
Yet, as we have witnessed in recent years, the talent pool in Belgium is deep with the fine fruits of their production line filling top level club sides from Madrid to Manchester and all points in between. Even the national team, for so long a footnote in tournament qualification campaigns, have remarkably risen to the top of FIFA’s much maligned world rankings; and while they didn’t quite live up to the hype at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil when many tipped them to go all the way, once again they boast just about the strongest squad on show in France at the European Championships. Has their time come, this – for want of a better and less recycled phrase – golden generation?
Obviously, scouting and recognition has played a huge part in the early development of the likes of Eden Hazard, Romelu Lukaku and Toby Alderweireld, but so too has their willingness – and the significant financial rewards to be had by their first clubs – to forsake Belgium and make a name for themselves while still in the rough diamond phase of their football careers. Just imagine what the standing of one or two Belgian clubs could potentially be right now if that culture of professional and economic migration had been tempered. Well, to go back to that 2008-09 season I eluded to earlier, Standard Liege gave us just the merest of tantalising glimpses.
The previous season former Belgium international goalkeeper Michel Preud’homme had guided Standard to their ninth league title, and first for 25 years, losing just once in the process and conceding a paltry 19 goals in 34 outings. They were pretty sharp going the other way too. Imports Milan Jovanović and Dieumerci Mbokani (more of them later) formed a deadly strike partnership while Brazilian defender Dante and Oguchi Onyewu of the USA were the bedrock upon which the team founded its defensive frugality.
However, to focus solely on the foreign influence in Wallonia as the root of the club’s success would be entirely unfair on what else was going on at the Stade Maurice Dufrasne at the time, for it was the Belgian, in particular the young Belgian contingent who began spearheading the revival in the nation’s football fortunes we’re witnessing today. That was no more evident than in the midfield where three rare finds were unearthed almost simultaneously.
Marouane Fellaini was born as one of twins in Etterbeek, a suburb of Brussels, to Moroccan parents. His father Abdellatif had been a goalkeeper in his native Morocco before becoming a bus driver to support his young family in his adopted country. Marouane forced his way into the Standard first team soon after the ink dried on his first professional contract showing many of the overtly physical traits he has long since become synonymous with in the English Premier League with first Everton and latterly Manchester United. At the end of that 2007-08 championship winning season he collected the Ebony Shoe – the award for Belgium’s best player of African descent.
If Fellaini was the brawn, then Steven Defour could rightly be cast in the role of the brains of the outfit. Of far less imposing stature than his gangly team mate, Defour was feted from an early age but seemed to court controversy just as readily – something that has sadly continued throughout his career. Initially breaking through at Genk, a failed move to Dutch giants Ajax brought him to Liege with a point to prove and by the time he was 19 years old he had not only taken over the captaincy of Les Rouches but he had trousered a league winners medal and the Golden Shoe award for Belgian football’s player of the year. He was seemingly destined for big things; perhaps even the overdue successor to the great Enzo Scifo as the national side’s chief playmaker.
Alongside them, initially as a winger, was the locally-born Axel Witsel; another fine academy product who had represented his country at every age group and had won his first full international cap (scoring on his debut) well before his 20th birthday.
Due to their poor UEFA coefficient, Belgium’s league champions were no longer rewarded with an automatic place in the Champions’ League group phase. Instead, they were forced to suffer the dreaded qualifying rounds where the fortunes of the draw could pair you with, for example, a barely-known Maltese side or the third or fourth best team from one of Europe’s powerhouse leagues. Unfortunately for Standard, the latter transpired; their path to the much sought after pot of gold was blocked by Liverpool – winners in 2005 and runners-up in 2007.
As fans of the Anfield club are perpetually keen to stress, they are European royalty; they’ve been champions of the continent five times, the point is valid. However, Liverpool – despite their recent visits to the final – were often riddled with insecurity in cup ties against so called weaker opposition, a fault that tended to occur quite frequently from the 1990s onwards, and undoubtedly Standard presented something of an unknown quantity.
The first leg, on August 13th 2008, took place in Liege in front of a full house. The home fans at the Stade Maurice Dufrasne made the place a cauldron of passion which probably contributed to the contrasting performances of both teams on the night.
New coach Laszlo Boloni’s men (Preud’homme having left for Gent) quickly set about Liverpool with fervour. Fellaini – whose aerial prowess is now no secret – saw an early headed effort bounce off a post and along the goal line before being cleared, a contentious decision which many believe should have been a goal; a Dante spot kick was saved by penalty saving expert Pepe Reina. Another header, this time by Igor de Camargo, was wasted when he should have done so much better. Half time gave the Reds of Merseyside all too brief respite as Standard continued to outplay them in the second half. Yet, somehow, they conspired to waste their total dominance as Liverpool escaped a battering with an improbable 0-0 draw to work with in the second leg.
If Rafa Benitez and the Liverpool fans expected Standard would wilt at the ‘palace’ of continental grandeur, they were in for a shock as they picked up where they left off two weeks earlier. Several chances came and went; Fellaini, Mbokani, de Camargo all guilty of wasting great opportunities to dump Liverpool into the UEFA Cup. A nervy extra time period was almost over when Dirk Kuyt popped up to spare Liverpool’s blushes with the killer goal. Injustice barely covers it.
Benitez’ side capitalised on their luck with a run to the quarter-final where they succumbed to Chelsea, but not before demolishing Real Madrid 5-0 on aggregate in the round of 16. The scant ‘reward’ for Standard Liege was a return trip to Merseyside…
The first round proper of the last ever UEFA Cup competition should have even a mere formality for Everton; a decent Premier League team used to finishing ‘best of the rest’ in a league then dominated by the usual four or five clubs. The draw put paid to that.
Standard Liege, after their near embarrassing of Liverpool, were given the respect they deserved, but could they replicate their performances against the other Merseyside club? The answer was most definitely yes.
On this occasion the first leg was away from home at Goodison Park, and while the onus would have been on Everton to take the game to Standard in order to have a bankable advantage for the second leg in Belgium, David Moyes’ natural cautious leanings played straight into the hands of the energetic and fearless opposition. One potential plus point for the Toffees would have been the loss of the dangerous Fellaini from Standard’s line up. The irony, of course, was that he had joined Everton in a club record £15million transfer just days before.
Everton’s defences were breached twice in an enthralling game. Standard gave as good as they got and walked away with deserved parity; 2-2. Wilfried Dalmat, Jovanovic and Defour all starring for Liege.
After the game Moyes pondered what was to come, "Hopefully we will play better and defend better in the return leg.
"Hopefully, we can go to Belgium, keep a clean sheet and score a goal."
‘Hopefully’ is the key word there. The Scot knew fine well his supposed better team were now in a sticky position.
Defour pulled the strings again in the second leg in another game of thrust and counter thrust, yet despite Everton’s threat, you always sensed that they were chasing the game while Standard controlled proceedings with their extra guile, zeal and technical ability. Phil Jagielka made it 1-1 with a quarter of the game to go but a winner never really looked likely, and so it was left to Jovanovic to finish them off with a penalty 11 minutes from the end.
Standard Liege had announced themselves – twice – as a club to watch, seemingly the spark of Belgium’s recent resurgence. They waltzed through the group phase before being eliminated in the first knockout round – perhaps surprisingly – by Portuguese side Braga. They retained their league title in 2008-09 after a play-off win over hated rivals Anderlecht. The future stars continued to shine; Christian Benteke and Eliaquim Mangala emerged as more and more scouts from Europe’s top clubs descended on the low country.
Fellaini had been picked up swiftly, others inevitably followed him out of the door as the club either cashed in or were unable to resist the overtures of the mighty.
Milan Jovanovic also popped on Merseyside, at Liverpool. However, the free transfer flopped during the disastrous reign of Roy Hodgson. After 10 appearances and no goals, Kenny Dalglish showed him the exit door; he returned to Belgium (Anderlecht) after just one year in England.
Axel Witsel moved on in 2011 when Benfica came calling. After one year in Lisbon, Zenit St. Petersburg prized him away in a deal worth an incredible 40million Euros. He was a member of Belgium’s 2014 World Cup and Euro 2016 squad.
Dieumerci Mbokani has been well travelled since his days in Liege, including spells at Anderlecht, Dinamo Kiev and Norwich City most recently where he suffered relegation from the Premier League.
Oguchi Onyewu turned up at various big clubs including AC Milan, Sporting CP and Newcastle United without ever establishing himself; his biggest claim to fame perhaps being his training ground fight with Zlatan Ibrahimovic in 2010 while on the books of the San Siro giants.
Eliaquim Mangala, although French, is one of the plethora of Belgian youth products now plying their trade in England having signed for mega-bucks Manchester City in a £32million deal from FC Porto in 2014. His defensive travails have provided plenty of material for the mockers, although he managed to win himself a place in the impressive France squad for Euro 2016.
Christian Benteke is another high profile Premier League struggler. Initially his move to England from Genk was a huge success as his brash, robust style helped an otherwise hapless Aston Villa retain their top flight status. Unfortunately for Benteke, the replacement of Brendan Rodgers by Jurgen Klopp at his current club Liverpool seems to have put his long term future at Anfield in serious jeopardy.
Steven Defour, who perhaps carried the biggest weight of expectancy, has never really fulfilled that potential. Manchester United and Sir Alex Ferguson were once keen admirers, but while the two made plenty of kissy-faces at each other, a deal never materialised. Injury probably put paid to that move but he eventually did get his big transfer when he went to FC Porto in 2011. Things never really worked out for him there and thus he returned to Belgium, controversially, with Anderlecht – a move the Standard fans didn’t take too kindly to. He was nothing more than a bit part player for the national team at the 2014 World Cup (he was sent off in his only appearance) and was omitted altogether for the Euro 2016 tournament where he should have been the country’s lynchpin.
Finally, there is Marouane Fellaini. Quite possibly the least gifted footballer of the whole Standard Liege bunch from that time but undoubtedly the one who has cultivated the biggest profile and notoriety. His up and at ‘em style undeniably suited him at Everton, so when David Moyes jumped into the seat left vacant by the retirement of Manchester United colossus Sir Alex Ferguson, he inevitably moved to Old Trafford with him for the thick end of £27million. The lurching knees and elbows style of Fellaini has failed to win the majority of United fans over, however, and it would be fair to say he has been the go-to scapegoat as the club toils to regain its former place at the head of English football.