Brugge trio lead from the front
Riding high at the top of the Belgian league, the renaissance of Club Brugge can be traced back to the summer of 2007 and the arrival of former Charleroi supremo Jacky Mathijssen. A strict disciplinarian, who is as protective of his players as he is unpredictable, the new man rang the changes in his bid to revive the fortunes of the Flemish giants. FIFA.com profiles three of Mathijssen's signings, Brugge's explosive forward trio of Joseph Akpala, Wesley Sonck and Nabil Dirar, a trident currently striking fear into the hearts of defences across Belgium.
Brought in to replace striker Francois Sterchele, the tragic victim of a fatal car accident in May 2008, Nigerian forward Akpala has justified his burgeoning reputation. Fellow front-runner Sonck, meanwhile, is back to his rampaging best and Dirar is adapting well to life at one of Belgium's biggest clubs. Indeed, such is their importance to the side that the partners-in-crime are rarely rotated, unlike up-and-coming Venezuelan Ronald Vargas, Belgium international Karel Geraerts or former Tottenham man Jonathan Blondel.
Having arrived in the Venice of the North fresh from topping last season's Jupiler League scorers' charts with Charleroi, newly-capped Nigeria international Akpala has perhaps the heaviest burden to bear. Three months into the season, however, and despite being dogged with fitness problems, Akpala has firmly established himself as an irreplaceable member of Brugge's forward line. Not only does Sonck struggle in the 22-year-old's absence, but the team's whole attacking impetus suffers without their six-goal top scorer.
"I'm not surprised to see him performing the way he is at the moment. He could easily win the top scorers' title again," said Akpala's former Charleroi team-mate Badou Kere. "Joseph's still got plenty of room to progress and he never rests on his laurels. At Charleroi he'd often stay behind after training to work on his game. The cleaning lady used to say to him: ‘Don't you have a home to go to?'" Given a rest from Cup duties this week by coach Mathijssen, Akpala the perfectionist should be in fine fettle for the challenges ahead.
His well-travelled strike partner and former Racing Genk idol Sonck, meanwhile, has rediscovered the sparkling form he showed prior to less-than-successful spells at Ajax and Borussia Monchengladbach. Scorer of five goals in four qualifying games for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™, including an early strike in Les Diables Rouges' 2-1 home defeat to European champions Spain, Sonck has also grabbed two goals in just three UEFA Cup matches.
Perhaps the club's biggest star, alongside international team-mate Stijn Stijnen, Sonck is only slightly less prolific in domestic action - firing five goals in 11 league games including a brace in Sunday's 2-2 draw at Charleroi. A key figure in the dressing room thanks to his natural leadership ability, the goalgetter is Mathijssen's most-used player, having racked up 946 minutes so far. Even at 30 years of age, the elegant and opportunistic sharpshooter is showing no signs of slowing down.
The last piece in the Brugge puzzle is livewire winger Nabil Dirar, who in October earned his first senior cap for Morocco. "I learned my football on the streets," says the player himself with pride. "Even when I was at Diegem in Division Three I'd spend all my time playing on the street or in a sports hall which my mates and I used to hire. I used to work at inventing new tricks. At first I used to rely a lot on my technical gifts, I loved keeping hold of the ball and creating danger in the opposition half," adds the wide player, more comfortable on the left flank but often used on the right in Mathijssen's tactical system.
After his transfer from Westerlo in June, Dirar has swiftly adapted to his new surroundings despite the demands of being a star in the making. "There's a lot more pressure here, you don't have any margin for error," says Dirar, whose play is characterised by speed, dribbling ability and incisive, fluid movements. Though still occasionally guilty of trying to do everything himself, the player insists that "inside I'm a team player".
Not enough of one to stop the teasing of Croatian playmaker Ivan Leko, who jested referees should provide two balls for each match - one for Dirar and one for everyone else. An injury doubt for this weekend's clash against third-placed Anderlecht, Brugge fans will be delighted that Dirar was back in training on Thursday. Their opponents, historically Belgium's most successful team, have been warned: Brugge's attacking trio are fit and raring for goals.