Young Belgian stars pose threat to Wigan

Hull City (and former Wigan Athletic) superblogger Ian Aspinall previews the Latics' European debut.

Young Belgian stars pose threat to Wigan

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September 18th, 2013

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Last season’s Belgium Pro League runners up SV Zulte Waregem are Wigan Athletic’s first Europa Cup opponents on Thursday night. The match is to be played at FC Bruges’ Jan Breydel Stadium, as Zulte’s Regenboogstadion only has a 10,000 capacity stadium and is not up to UEFA standard. However, Wigan fans will not be too downhearted with the change of venue, as it will give the travelling fans an opportunity to sample the delights of the medieval city and of course, the famous Belgian beers.

Essevee, as they are known, produced their highest top-flight finish in 2012/13 when finishing runners-up to champions Anderlecht. This season the team has already beaten Anderlecht 4-3 in one of the most exciting games seen at the Regenboogstadion, and the prospects are bright for the team from West Flanders.

The impetus for Zulte’s success is a nucleus of exciting young players, led by the most notable Thorgan Hazard, the 20-year-old brother of Eden. Thorgan joined his brother at Chelsea in the summer of 2012 but was quickly loaned back to ensure he got regular first team action.

The 5ft 9in attacking midfielder/winger has the ability to skip past defenders and make a telling cross. He has already scored four goals this season – including a spectacular strike in the recent victory over Anderlecht – and will require some close attention by the Latics’ back line if he is to be contained.

The rising star Hazard could soon be eclipsed by one of his teammates, the defensive midfielder Bernard (Junior) Malanda. The 19-year-old Belgium Youth international has the potential to become a formidable midfielder. Fulham wanted to take him to the Premier League, but he opted for Wolfsburg and has been loaned back to Zulte for this season.

The wealth of young talent is not limited to these two, and also includes Belgium Under-21 international Jens Naessens and Macedonian striker Aleksander Trajkovski, 20 – who recently scored against Wales in the World Cup qualifiers.

Former Belgium under-21s manager Franky Dury has performed miracles with a limited budget at Zulte. But this season he will want to go one better than last and win the league title.

Zulte surprisingly lost for the first time this season on Sunday. Their 5-2 defeat by Racing Genk was a high-tempo encounter and included three penalties and a red card for Junior Malanda, as well as the seven goals.

Wigan also goes into the game with inconsistent form after a disappointing 2-0 defeat to Leicester City on Saturday. The Latics will be looking for a major improvement if they are to progress beyond the group stages.

Manager Owen Coyle does have some Europa League experience, having managed Bolton Wanderers through the group stages in 2005/06. Then with more success in 2007/08 they reached the last 16 – gaining an unexpected draw at European champions Bayern Munich, as well as becoming the first British team to beat Red Star Belgrade in Belgrade. They also defeated Atlético Madrid on aggregate before being knocked out by Sporting Lisbon.

Wigan will need to be at their best if they are to defeat the Belgians on home soil. A draw away from home should be seen as a good result in what looks to be an evenly-matched group D, which also includes Rubin Kazan (Rus) and NK Maribor (Svn).


Ian Aspinall

photo of Thorgan Hazard:

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