If you are old enough, you are good enough. Perhaps the finest
recent example of this old footballing adage comes from Belgium,
where Standard Liege stand atop the first division after a flawless
start to the league campaign. With five games gone the Walloon club
boast a 100 per cent record, scoring an impressive 18 goals in the
All in all, that is a wholly unexpected beginning, particularly after the club bade farewell to the experienced trio of Milan Rapaic, Eric Deflandre and Sergio Conceicao during the close season, an exodus that prompted coach Michel Preud'homme to build for the future by drafting in some of the club's up-and-coming youth products.
It is this new generation of players that has powered Les Rouches, as they are known locally, to the top of the table. Leading the way is the magical midfield teenage triumvirate made up by the team's playmaker, captain and Belgium international Steven Defour, international team-mate and defensive midfielder Marouane Fellaini, and the right-sided U-21 international Axel Witsel.
"This is pretty unique in Belgium," acknowledges Defour when asked about the confidence the club has put in the three youngsters. "People often say it's easier to play with youngsters. In the case of Axel, Marouane and myself it's quality that counts. We all learned a lot last season, and like Marouane, we are more streetwise on the pitch now and that bit more mature too," adds the 19-year-old, who made his Jupiler League debut with Racing Genk two years ago.
Standard's midfield is completed by the left-sided Israeli
Salim Toama, and the quartet is currently the most impressive unit
Eerste Klasse, outperforming even the Anderlecht line-up
of Jan Polak, Lucas Biglia, Ahmed Hassan and Jelle Van Damme.
"With so many seasoned performers having moved on, Standard
have decided to go for youth," comments the widely respected
Marc Wilmots, a national team legend and now a shrewd scout with
the Liege club.
"Giving Steven the captain's armband is something that's pretty consistent with that policy. The team has a very low average age, and even though 19 is perhaps a bit young to be leading a football team, I think it will really give a boost to the new training academy."
Fellaini bursts on the scene
Unlike Defour, Fellaini and Witsel signed their first professional contracts with Standard and wasted little time in forcing their way into the first-team set-up last season. A tall powerful holding midfielder, the technically gifted Fellaini found himself in the starting XI barely a month after signing his first professional contract. Thrown in at the deep end in a UEFA Champions League qualifying match against Steaua Bucharest in August 2006, the Brussels-born player, then 18, responded with a brilliant performance, holding on to his place for the rest of the season and relegating previous incumbent Sinrima Dembele to a bit-part role.
Following the springtime saga of his on-off contract extension
(he finally signed an improved deal taking him up to 2011) and the
disappointment of failing to shine in Belgium's semi-final
defeat in the UEFA U-21 European Championship, Fellaini has gone
from strength to strength this season and is already attracting
admiring glances from the likes of Chelsea, Paris Saint Germain,
Marseille and Tottenham Hotspur. "I don't chase needlessly
so much, and make better decisions about when to go for the
ball," he explains.
"Before I used to be exhausted at the end of games, whereas now I have a lot more energy left. I'm more aware of my attacking duties now and I've improved my aerial game too."
Fellow shooting star and youth international Witsel had to wait
for the winter break before making his mark on the first team.
Nurtured by Preud'homme, the homegrown prodigy emerged from the
shadows last spring, overcoming his lack of experience to establish
himself as a regular fixture in the Standard midfield. A versatile,
two-footed player, the fresh-faced Witsel is relishing the
opportunity to show off the gifts that the club has spent years
helping to polish. "I've been at Standard for eight years,
and I'm aware they've invested a lot in me," he said.
"I've experienced virtually everything with the national youth teams since I was 14. I've always kept the faith while a lot of youngsters have left the club. But did all of them succeed? Me, well, I just want to show that it's not impossible. I could be an example for others."
Maturity beyond its years
The other member of the talented trio is Steven Defour, a genuine rough diamond. Polished by Racing Genk between 2003 and 2006, Defour was not even old enough to sit his driving test when European giants Chelsea, Valencia and Ajax started expressing an interest in him. The youngster opted for Ajax but Genk stood firm, refusing to let their prodigy go. Although the player and his agent eventually won the day, his final destination was the Stade Sclessin, not the Amsterdam Arena.
Stationed on the right in his first season with Standard, he was promoted to playmaker and skipper last July. After making his international debut last spring, Defour has kicked on this term to become the most outstanding attacking midfielder in the Belgium squad, with some even describing him as the best player in the league full stop. Could Defour be the man to bring back the glory days to a club bursting with ambition but lacking, up to now at least, the resources to fulfil that long-cherished dream?
"There's something different about Standard," comments the fast-maturing midfield general, who has been the subject of fulsome praise from across France and Belgium for the last six months now. "Before the players used to lose it on the pitch, while the fans stayed calm. But this season, it's the supporters who are going crazy and the players who are taking everything in their stride. That just goes to show that this young team has already grown up."
A fine blend of youth and maturity has brought Les Rouches success so far this season. All of a sudden, Standard are starting to harbour thoughts of a first championship crown since 1983, long before their midfield wonderboys were even born.