Welcome to the first ever (and possibly last ever depending on how popular they are) The Belgian Waffle Awards, recognising some of the greatest talent that Belgium has to offer. In a series of posts, we’ll rundown the best players both in the Jupiler Pro League and on foreign shores. Today, we award those who have shone in some of Europe’s best leagues and in no way infringes the copyright of the Best Belgian Abroad Award. None at all.
It can’t have escaped your attention (especially if you’ve read this site before), that this generation of Belgium players contain some of the most promising perhaps ever. I’m not even remotely being hyperbolic there.
This can be measured by how many are playing at some Europe’s top clubs, and by the dearth of players from the Jupiler Pro League making up the national team itself. The best players have been scooped up some prestigious clubs, and many made the transition last summer – Axel Witsel and Steven Defour both heading to Portugal and Thibaut Courtois to Madrid via a brief stay in a West London hotel room.
Some however were cultivated outside of Belgium, the Ajax and Lille academies being particular hotbeds for Belgian ex-patriots. Others are comparatively European jetsetters, some have carved impressive careers in less glamourous surroundings. All will be profiled here – it’s not about the team you play for, but the trophies and impact you’ve had this season. This Top 11 list will hopefully create a bit of controversy too – why Top 11? Because I go one step further.
Consequently the following players do not appear in this Top 11 list:
A toss-up between Alderweireld and Nainggolan for this extra spot, but the latter gets the nod for a season where he really made himself get noticed. Serie A’s finest clubs have all taken a shine to the industrious midfield terrier who has been a revelation for Cagliari. Truth be told, they’ve not had a great season, comfortably mid-table yet it’s Nainggolan who’s been recieving a lot of plaudits – there was even talk that the Old Lady would come calling. A rugged determined individual who provides an anchor but isn’t afraid to dribble forward on occasion. He’s in this list for finally breaking through in Serie A – bigger things next season we think!
Unabashed love for the man affectionately known as ‘Big Mo’ on Merseyside. The former Standard Liège midfielder has more than settled at Goodison Park now, becoming a linchpin in David Moyes’s side. Strangely enough, Fellaini is a one-man lynch mob, haranguing players with his stature and being an all-round general nuisance for the opposition. But he’s much more than that and this couldn’t be better demonstrated at the recent 4-4 vs Manchester United. A stellar performance in a game Everton were seen as rank outsiders, Fellaini held off and out-thought the United backline. He also scored a brilliant volley, proving he has the technique to do just more than bustle. He would be higher had this form been present throughout the season, only coming to the floor since January – like Everton themselves.
In a reversal of fortunes to Fellaini’s season, this man didn’t take long to become a fan favourite in Eindhoven. After moving to the club from Utrecht along with Kevin Strootman, Mertens made an immediate impact and just couldn’t stop scoring. A hat-trick vs Excelsior was followed up by four against Roda JC. Even though that ratio tailed off slightly, Mertens continued to dazzle and helped PSV to a 3rd place finish. He also managed to lift the Dutch Cup, scoring in the 3-0 final win over Heracles. He did however need emergency dental work straight after that goal, colliding with the keeper as he put it away. Not that it mattered – medals count more than teeth! Mertens deserves his place in this list for that blistering start.
Clint Dempsey may have got all the plaudits from onlookers, yet another Fulham player has quietly gone about his business. The former AZ Alkmaar man came of age at Craven Cottage this season, and also became a statto’s dream. One of the most wasteful players in the league perhaps, having only mustered 2 goals all season but that doesn’t tell you how much work Dembélé does. He’s the running man pretty much, exceptional at dribbling on the flank and also with tackling, but revelling in a deeper midfield role as well, obtaining an 88.6% passing percentage. Having seen him in the flesh this season, his worth to Fulham is huge – they always look to him to start an attacking move. Needs better shooting boots and would find them if he actually ventured into the area but Dembélé could be a cheaper options for some bigger clubs in the summer, with Manchester United linked recently.
Quite possibly the most underrated man on this list – the former Gent defender has found a home on the Baltic Sea. Zenit have coasted to the super-duper long league title(18 months as they switch to a regular European format), with Lombaerts becoming a key player in the defence of Luciano Spalletti’s team, quite often being called up on to the clearing up. He’s featured in pretty much all of their league games this season, having only lost 4 in 43 at the time of writing. A sensational effort for a team asked to play that many games, without taking a toll in terms of results. Lombaerts continued to be in Georges Leekens’ mind despite an embarrassment of riches at centre-back. And so he should be. We’ll get to see him in the Champions League next season hopefully, with Zenit now making perennial appearances – this being their second straight league title.
Yet another player who has gone under the radar somewhat, after making his loan from Saint-Étienne permanent. He never really lived up to expectations in France but has found life in Greece somewhat sweeter, scoring at will. Mirallas scored 20 goals in the Greek Super League to help guide his team to their 15th league and cup double. Even more impressive is the fact he only played 25 games in the league, contributing roughly a third of the total team tally. Individual honours have come Mirallas’ way as well as he was also won Greek Player of the Season award for his invaluable contribution. His revitalisation led Georges Leekens to select him up front once again and perhaps someone might take a punt in the off-season for Mirallas.
You’ve come a long way, Axel. No longer do we see the petulant player who garnered a thuggish reputation after that tackle (you could argue that was making of him) but one that blossomed into a fantastic midfield dynamo. Carrying on from his impressive performances at Standard last season, Witsel has slotted beautifully into the Lisbon club’s style, who snapped him up at measly £6.7m. Now the bigger clubs are sniffing around, after taking notice of Witsel’s dominant performances and Benfica have put a bounty on his head. An elegant player to watch at times, seemingly comfortable right across the midfield but also provides a bit of gritty edge to his more flashy counterparts. A season in which he really stamped his authority as one of Europe’s most wanted.
Having one of the best debut seasons you’re likely to see, you’d be left to wonder how Thibaut Courtois could possibly better it. Forty league games for Genk, in which his fantastic shot-stopping ability helped them on their way to the title, was enough to persuade Chelsea to splash the cash for one of the best young keepers in Europe. Obviously unable to displace Petr Cech, he was dispatched to Atletico Madrid to fill the void left by David De Gea. And boy did he fill it. Courtois shone in the opening exchanges of La Liga, barely letting a goal in for two lengthy periods of the campaign. His season reached a wonderful end with Diego Simeone’s side lifiting the Europa League, unfancied against Marcelo Bielsa’s Athletic Bilbao. What’s more impressive is how quickly he picked up Spanish and really revelled in the culture of the country. He may not be in a Chelsea shirt yet, but that time could be closely than we first thought.
Mr Versatility. Mr Reliable. Whatever you want to call him, Jan Vertonghen has had a phenomenally good year at Ajax once again. An integral cog to their defence and he can be relied upon to come up with an important goal too, with 8 goals this year. Since taking up the captain’s armband, Vertonghen really has flourished and his ability to cover other positions has been well documented. Praise was heaped on him in the Europa League tie vs Manchester United and this really saw eyes from the Premier League become intensely focused on him. Vertonghen’s leadership helped spur them on to the league title and it appears Spurs is his destination for next season out of the two North London clubs. A fantastic campaign, in which he was named Dutch Player of the Year as well as Ajax’s. His contribution to the club since joining the youth ranks has been a large one, now he heads on to bigger things.
Any other year, Eden Hazard would be top of the list. A player with seemingly no weakness, Hazard has once again lit up Ligue 1 with blisteringly good performances right across the attacking positions. 17 goals and one less assist, Hazard truly is the fulcrum of the Lille side, who are only just out of the title race in France this year. He mesmerises defenders constantly, jinks past them, then more often than not will ripple the back of the net with a scorching drive. One assist sticks out in my mind this season, a ridiculous Rabona for Nolan Roux against PSG – he again and again continues to think of new ways of channeling his creativity. As we all know, the 21-year-old is set to move to a European powerhouse in the summer – which one it will be is anyone’s guess, it’s a length queue to attract his services and an equally lengthy off-season transfer saga to follow.
There could only be one winner – undoubtedly in my view, the best centre-back in world football currently. The former Anderlecht’s man ascent to one of Europe’s best has been a long road, via the Brussels club then to Hamburg. But with each season, Kompany continues to improve at the back. He’s Manchester City’s rock both home and away in the Premier League, forming a formidable partnership with Joleon Lescott of all people, and making Stefan Savic look passable.
Normally you’d have a rugged defender deal with the tackling and the other to deal with clearing the lines – Kompany is equally adept at both, displaying a tremendously good attitude as captain and having the mental strength to bring City back into the title race. He’s a great ambassador to have too, eloquently speaking numerous languages fluently and being able to decipher the words of Liam Gallagher. His goal against Manchester United sealed arguably City’s most important win in Premier League history as they went on to lift the championship. Recognised in the Premier League Team of the Year for two years running, and voted the Player of the Season this time round, there’s genuinely no better person to get top billing here. Lifting the Premier League title in dramatic circumstances at the last can’t feel much sweeter. Congratulations Vincent on the best season of your career so far.
Agree with the list? Comment below on what your Top 11 would be!
Tagged Ajax, Arsenal, Atletico Madrid, Axel Witsel, Belgium, Benfica, Cagliari, Chelsea, Dries Mertens, Eden Hazard, Everton, football, Fulham, jan Vertonghen, Jupiler Pro League, Juventus, Kevin Mirallas, Lille, Manchester City, Marouane Fellaini, Moussa Dembele, Nicolas Lombaerts, Olympiacos, Olympiakos, Porto, Premier League, PSV Eindhoven, Radja Nainggolan, Romelu Lukaku, Serie A, steven defour, Thibaut Courtois, Thomas Vermaelen, Toby Alderweireld, Vincent Kompany, Zenit St Petersburg