Journalist for Het Laatste Nieuws
How have Gent been doing on the pitch lately?
Kristof: “They’re not having their best season so far but that’s because they lost a number of key players in the summer and have just replaced them with new ones. They lost, for instance, Sven Kums, a deep-lying playmaker who is on loan at Udinese. Matz Sels, who was twice elected as Goalkeeper of the Year in Belgium, joined Newcastle, where he is second choice goalkeeper at the moment and they lost striker Laurent Depoitre to Porto. They were very important players so since then, the manager, Hein Vanhaezebrouck, has been looking for the right system. During the winter they paid a lot of money for a few players to reinforce their squad. They’ve bought a good goalkeeper, Lovre Kalinić, who is the second goalkeeper of the Croatian national squad. He’s a tall guy, similar to the height of Thibaut Courtois, just over two metres and they’ve also brought in a Japanese striker called Yuya Kubo, but he can’t play on Thursday as he’s already played Europa League football for his previous club, Young Boys in Switzerland. The squad they’ve got now is completely different to the squad that was struggling in the league a few months ago, but they’ve still only played five games together so it’s really difficult to know which level they’re at. For the most part, it’s a new team and they’re performing with ups and downs. They beat reigning champions and current league leaders Club Brugge two weeks ago, but got beaten by relegation candidates Eupen last weekend. There's currently a bit of worry at the club because they're eighth in the league table and with four games to go in the regular part of the league season, they’re not in the play-off places. If they want to play in Europe next season, they'll have to get in the top six and that's why there's a chance they might prioritize next weekend's league game against Standard Liege over the match with Spurs, which is supposed to be their 'gala' game in Europe.”
What about ex-Spurs academy defender William Troost-Ekong?
Kristof: “He was on loan to Norwegian side Haugesund for one-and-a-half years but I'm not convinced that he will play a lot this season. He’s not one of their regulars and they’ve brought in another defender recently too, Samuel Gigot. Troost-Ekong was unknown when he returned to Belgium in November but he played a few games in January. He's not on their final list for the Europa League either, so he won't be in the squad on Thursday."
What formation do they play?
Kristof: “The manager likes the 3-4-3 formation – he’s quite flexible with it. He used three at the back in 2006 or 2007 when he was with Kortrijk in the second division and he always laughed about it, saying that everyone talks about Guardiola changing to three at the back at Barcelona in 2008 but he already played with that system at Kortrijk!”
Tell us a bit more about their manager…
Kristof: “Hein Vanhaezebrouck (pictured, above) is quite well known for his tactical knowledge. Along with Michel Preud'homme (Club Brugge) he is the best manager in the Belgian league. He was a useful player, a sweeper, in some smaller Belgian first division teams, but he made his name as a pundit on a Belgian TV station that broadcasts all the games in England, Spain and Italy and that’s where he managed to see a lot of foreign matches. He worked his way up from the lower leagues using the knowledge he’d gained and he’s gone on from there. He likes to talk – and he can entertain. You'll really like to listen to him because he breathes and talks football."
Do you expect him to deploy a 3-4-3 shape against us?
Kristof: “He used it recently and he’s made his team with it, but in the last game he switched to a 4-3-3. We'll see what he does on Thursday. The success Gent had two seasons ago when they won the Belgian league and qualified for the Champions League was all built on this strong 3-4-3 formation but, on the other hand, I’ve worked with him once before and he doesn’t like to talk about systems and formations – he says it’s all fluid and that three at the back is sometimes four at the back, it just depends on what the players do on the pitch. In the starting positions, usually there are three centre-backs but maybe for Spurs he will do something different – you never know. Maybe the wing-backs will drop deep and there will be five at the back, but he’s never been a defensive manager, he always like to play his football a little bit like the Barcelona way. He loves that kind of football and one of his former players once told me that he’d shown them videos of Barcelona to make them aware of what to do in some situations. I’m really looking forward to seeing how they play. In the Champions League last year, they really played football, not like the old-fashioned Belgian way of being too cautious in European games. They did well last season and they even qualified for the knockout rounds – only the second Belgian team ever to do that in the Champions League.”
Above: Gent midfielder Danijel Milicevic in Europa League action.
What about their home ground, the Ghelamco Arena?
Kristof: “It’s new. They’ve played there for three years and it’s really the only new stadium that’s been built in the last few years in Belgium. You have some grounds that have been rebuilt but it’s the only recent stadium built in the country. It’s a nice stadium and certainly for the big games there is a good atmosphere.”
Who are their main footballing rivals?
Kristof: “Club Brugge. It’s 40 kilometres further down the road but they’re still quite local. The way it works with the regions in Belgium, you have West Flanders where Bruges is the capital and in East Flanders, Ghent is the capital so the rivalry between the two cities and football teams is something that goes back to the middle ages. Ghent is one of the bigger cities in Belgium so you’ll always find fans there, but it was after Gent won the cup and, certainly, when they moved into their new stadium that the hype really started. They became champions, then they had the Champions League campaign last year so everything suddenly fell into place like a jigsaw. It’s a team that a lot of people like because they play nice football."