Wim Van Walle fills in the blanks on the Red Devils' Champions League play-off opponents...
Who are they?
- Name: Club Brugge KV
- Formed: 1891
- Stadium: Jan Breydel Stadium (29,472)
- Manager: Michel Preud'homme
- Honours: Belgian First Division (13), Belgian Cup (11)
When Club Brugge and Manchester United were drawn together in the Champions League play-offs, both sets of fans will have reacted quite differently. In Belgium these days, fans are happy if their club manages to somehow scrape into Europe's elite competition, resigned to the fact they have no chance so hope for a tie with a big name to generate some revenue. Meanwhile, many United fans may well have thought: “Who?”
Club Brugge are one of Belgium’s traditional Big Three, which also include Standard Liège and the country’s biggest and most famous club, Anderlecht. ‘Club’, as they are often abbreviated, are second in the all-time league winners’ table with 13 titles, a long way behind arch-rivals Anderlecht, who have 33. They have won two more Belgian Cups than Anderlecht, however, and one more Belgian Supercup. Overall, though, they are widely perceived as Belgium’s second club, something which riles their fans no end.
Club Brugge’s best years were the 1970s, when they won the league five times and played in two European finals (they lost to Liverpool in the 1976 UEFA Cup and 1978 European Cup). They remained a force in Belgium but since the turn of the century have only won the league twice, the last a distant memory from 2005. A number of cup wins alleviated the pain to some extent but there was a general feeling that Brugge were slipping.
But then, in September 2013, former Belgium goalkeeper Michel Preud’homme took over. And while they only managed third place in the league, and second the following season, the 56-year-old did give Club Brugge their first trophy in eight years with last season’s Belgian Cup. Preud’homme was hoisted onto the players’ shoulders and carried around the stadium in triumph. A mere three days earlier, he had steered the club into the quarter-finals of the Europa League for the first time in 20 years. They went a staggering 16 games unbeaten before succumbing 1-0 on aggregate to eventual finalists Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk. Like an oil tanker’s captain, Preud’homme seems to be slowly turning his club around.
Club Brugge have some good players, with indefatigable central midfielder Ruud Vormer, former Belgium regular Timmy Simons and striker Tom De Sutter, who has agreed a move to Bursaspor after the second leg and will be determined to make his last games count.
But their biggest asset is their manager, who seems to have instilled a new belief at the Jan Breydel Stadium. The legendary Preud’homme is a shrewd tactician who will adapt formation and selection to every new opponent. He has a keen eye for exploiting the tiniest weakness, sometimes in teams who are considered much stronger. Preud’homme’s tactical awareness has some Belgian fans hoping he will one day take over from national coach Marc Wilmots, who they see as tactically challenged (although the fans' phrasing may not be so subtle).
Louis van Gaal must be warned that Preud’homme has a habit of frustrating Dutchmen. In 1988 he won the European Cup Winners’ Cup with his club KV Mechelen, beating Ajax in the final and contributing with some excellent saves. KV Mechelen remain the only Belgian club to win a European trophy, and added the Supercup some months later, beating PSV 3-1. Six years later, Belgium saw off their great rivals Holland in the World Cup after the latter had dominated, only for their efforts to be thwarted by the sublime Belgium keeper. After one of countless saves, the Dutch commentary sighed: “And again, that annoying Preud’homme!”
As an amusing aside, Preud’homme, then on the board at Benfica, once snatched Van Gaal’s assistant and made him manager at his own club. Preud’homme turned out to have a good eye for managers: said assistant was one Jose Mourinho.
Club Brugge have many players missing through injury. Free-scoring Israel international Lior Refaelov and last season’s top league scorer, Colombian Jose Izquierdo, are both missing. They are Club’s biggest threats and their absences will be felt. But the biggest absence is in goal. Australia goalkeeper Mat Ryan was outstanding in the last two seasons, and his departure to Valencia has left a gap Preud’homme has so far not been able to fill adequately. Replacement Sinan Bolat hasn’t started the season too well and Brugge currently have second-choice Sebastien Bruzzese minding the net.
The game plan
Organisation will be key if Club Brugge want to get anything out of the game at Old Trafford. The Belgians play an adaptable and fluid 4-3-3 and build mostly from the flanks. Typically, Preud’homme and his assistants have watched every game United have played and will use that documentation to stop the Red Devils from getting the best out of their star players. Preud’homme is tight-lipped about his plans but has said that if the players carry out his instructions, they should have a chance.
Fans will look for a big game from playmaker Victor Vazquez, a product of Barcelona’s fabled youth academy. However, with the focus possibly on damage limitation, veteran captain Timmy Simons – in his 70th European game for the club – is key to whatever result Club Brugge hope to get. The defensive midfielder is not pacey but makes up with impressive awareness and determination. Simons, 39, has captained every club he's played for and it's telling that many Belgian fans were angered by his non-inclusion for last year’s World Cup: they felt he deserved a place as much as positional rivals like Axel Witsel, Steven Defour and Marouane Fellaini.
Club Brugge are from Belgium, which means they don’t ‘do’ famous. The beautiful old city in which they are based is infinitely more famous than the club.
Club are the third-oldest club in Belgium, founded in 1891. From that long history, Jan Ceulemans must be their biggest icon. Between 1978 and 1991 he played 405 games in their black and blue, scoring 191 goals and winning the Golden Shoe, Belgium’s prime individual prize, three times. Ceulemans rejected the mighty AC Milan in 1980 to stay in Brugge and become a bona fide legend. His determination, leadership and relentless effort earned him the nickname ‘Sterke Jan’ (Strong Jan). Ceulemans is also Belgium’s most capped player, turning out for the Red Devils 96 times, three more than current captain Simons.