Anderlecht: The Belgians with a Premier League-linked wonderkid to hurt Spurs
Who are they?
Tottenham fans hardly need reminding of who Anderlecht are: Spurs’ last European trophy, the 1984 UEFA Cup, was lifted after defeating the Belgian giants on penalties in the final. Anderlecht were the reigning champions that season having won the tournament in 1983; they also have two Cup Winners’ Cups to their name, obtained in 1976 and 1978 – the former after beating West Ham in a dramatic final at Heysel Stadium in Brussels.
While Anderlecht are no longer the significant force they were in the 70s and 80s in Europe, they are still by far the most successful and powerful club in Belgium
While Anderlecht are no longer the significant European force they were in the '70s and '80s, they are still by far the most successful and powerful club in Belgium, with 33 championship titles – 20 more than closest rivals Club Brugge. The fans always expect the team to lead the table, with any other scenario immediately considered a crisis. That is why, when Anderlecht finished third last season, coach Besnik Hasi came under fierce criticism despite his previous popularity in Brussels as a combative midfielder. To add insult to injury, they lost the Belgian Cup final to Brugge in the most dramatic fashion possible, conceding a goal-of-the-season contender by Lior Refaelov in injury time.
Another significant problem faced by Hasi is that his style is considered downright boring. This is a crime in Brussels, where positive football is expected even when – as is currently the case – the side lacks flair. Anderlecht are often unable to kill off games against inferior opposition, moreover, with the 1-0 defeat to Qarabag in Azerbaijan a huge disappointment.
Their best game of their season came on Sunday, when Anderlecht thrashed Zulte Waregem 4-0 to climb to third place in the table. That, though, was only the second time in the last 11 matches in the Belgian Pro League and Europa League where they managed to score more than one goal. If that is not a lacklustre football, what is?
Goalkeeper Silvio Proto, the captain and the leader, is vastly experienced at the age of 32 and cool under pressure. His never-say-die attitude helps his younger team-mates perform, and his reflexes often win Anderlecht crucial points.
Tottenham should certainly keep an eye on former DC United star Andy Najar. The Honduran midfielder is used as a right-back at Anderlecht, where he makes adventurous runs forward down the flank, and has been the club’s most consistent player this season by far. The central midfield is solid, too, with former Porto star Steven Defour partnered by the young and energetic academy graduate Leander Dendoncker.
Up front, new signing Stefano Okaka is calling the shots. Fans were initially sceptical as to whether the Italian could replace departed goal machine Aleksandar Mitrovic, but the former Roma and Sampdoria striker has averaged more goals than the Serbia international so far, and is also more of a team player. Okaka, who made his debut for the Azzurri only a year ago, scored the winner for Roma against Fulham in the Europa League back in 2009, with Tottenham the latest London club to attempt to deal with his power and physical presence within the penalty area.
Tottenham will feel confident of exploiting a defence that contains only two players used in their natural position
Creativity is a major shortcoming that starts from the very back of the team, with centre-halves Kara Mbodj and Olivier Deschacht unable to start attacks. The 34-year-old Deschacht is a converted left-back who spent most of his career running up and down the wing; coupled with midfielder Najar being deployed in the back four, Tottenham will feel confident of exploiting a defence that contains only two players used in their natural position.
The club’s fans tend to lose patience with the team when things don’t go their way, and could put pressure on the players if they are struggling. Indeed, the presence of expectant home supporters probably explains why Anderlecht have performed better in away matches this season.
Hasi has experimented quite a lot since his appointment in March 2014. Anderlecht used the diamond system at the start of the current season but, when that didn’t work out, the coach switched to a classic 4-4-2, moving playmaker Dennis Praet to his more natural role on the left. Highly-rated 18-year-old Youri Tielemans lost his place in the starting XI as a result, which may not have been the best idea of Hasi's.
With Tielemans on the bench, it is easy to name Praet as the key player and the major source of creativity. The 21-year-old has already received many offers from clubs in Europe’s major divisions – including Premier League outfits Liverpool, Everton, Arsenal and Manchester United – and was reportedly close to signing for Borussia Dortmund in the summer. Expect Jurgen Klopp’s new side to be watching him closely in the coming months.
One of the most incredible games in Anderlecht's history took place just two weeks ago. Three different players – Praet, Okaka and Tielemans – missed penalties in the league meeting with Mechelen, and the team eventually conceded a bizarre own goal by Mbodj deep in injury time to draw 1-1. All of Belgium laughed at them, and it is now a famous fact that Anderlecht are very poor at spot-kicks. But Tottenham have known that for 31 years, haven't they?
Paul Van Himst, nicknamed White Pele in his homeland and widely considered the greatest Belgian footballer of all time, is the ultimate legend at Anderlecht. He spent 16 seasons at the club between 1959 and 1975, winning eight championship titles, scoring 235 goals and netting 30 times for the national team. He later spent three years as a coach in the '80s, and was on the bench when Anderlecht lost to Spurs in that UEFA Cup final. In 1994, he managed Belgium at the World Cup, and remains the country’s most iconic footballing figure.