After beating the likes of PFC Lokomotiv Moskva, FK Austria Wien and AC Sparta Praha, Newcastle United FC hold no fears for Belgium's sole European survivors.
AFC Ajax versus SV Zulte Waregem: four-times European champions against a recently formed side that had never played a European game before September. It was an unlikely match-up, but then the Flanders-based club have been pulling off surprises since winning the 2005/06 Belgian Cup in their debut top-flight season.
No one expected them to knock out PFC Lokomotiv Moskva in the first round of the UEFA Cup - a result coach Francky Dury described as "like a two-horsepower engine beating a Ferrari". A 4-1 demolition of FK Austria Wien in Vienna in their first group game seemed even more improbable. By the time AC Sparta Praha were defeated 3-1 Zulte Waregem's tale of the unexpected was beginning to have a surprisingly predictable look about it.
Belgium's sole survivors
Not that anything about this team is predictable. Who would have thought they would be the only Belgian side still in Europe come January? Not the mighty RSC Anderlecht, the wealthy Club Brugge KV nor the popular R. Standard de Liège. It is quite an exploit for a club who just two seasons ago were still playing in the second division.
"When I arrived in the summer of 2005 half the squad were amateurs," says defender Frédéric Dindeleux, who joined from Kilmarnock FC in Scotland. "I had to adapt quickly because all of a sudden we were training at 5.30pm, something I'd never done before. But after winning the cup we had an eye on Europe and we only signed professionals. Now we train at 3pm. That can't be easy for those still working." Dindeleux himself accepted a pay cut to be closer to Lille where he grew up. "Here I'm nearer home and have an interesting sporting challenge. Money wasn't the most important factor."
Dindeleux has been a privileged witness to the exceptional progress of Zulte Waregem, who were formed in 2001 when Zultse VV and former first division side KSV Waregem merged. The appointment of Vincent Mannaert as general manager from 1 January fits with the club's new professional approach. His arrival will allow sporting director Luc Dhaenens to focus on the sporting side on a full-time basis as the transfer window approaches. Although the club will not rush headlong into the market, coach Dury, a local hero, is expected to ask president Willy Naessens for funds to strengthen his squad. With a budget of just €4m, competing on both European and domestic fronts is tough. Zulte Waregem are punching above their weight in Europe, but they face a fight to preserve their top-flight status at home.
So how did this small club struggling to hold their own in Belgium manage to surprise Lokomotiv, humiliate Austria then see off Sparta? "We have everything to win in the UEFA Cup and nothing to lose," Dindeleux says. "Moscow took us lightly. We played with freedom and had that little bit of luck you need, especially in the second leg. In Vienna, we deserved to win. We played well and were really focused. Prague was a dream match. We could play them again ten times and lose eight. We had four chances and scored three goals - everything went our way."
Next stop England. Zulte Waregem have been drawn against Newcastle United FC in the Round of the 32 and the trip to St James' Park will be another first for Dury's side. "It really was an excellent draw," the coach said. "It's also great from a commercial perspective.
I asked the chairman if it would have been better to draw a smaller team but there wasn't another Zulte Waregem in the pot. It's also nice for the fans. Zulte Waregem and our supporters can get a taste of the English atmosphere. After Eastern Europe, Spain and the Netherlands this is a new challenge. I'm really looking forward to it. I promise we won't let Belgian football down. We won't go down without a fight."
This is an abridged version of an article that appears in this week's edition of the uefa.com Magazine. To read the article in full, click here.