When Leverkusen keeper Lukas Hradecky fumbled Abakar Sylla’s headed ball and clumsily guided it across the goal line, Brugge fans across the Jan Breydel Stadium went wild. It was Sylla’s first goal for the Belgian side, and Hradecky’s mistake put Brugge up for its first Champions League win in nearly a year of waiting.

Starting keeper Simon Mignolet whooped and skipped around the 18-yard box. Brugge fans chanted, proudly adorned in their familiar blue and black jersey. Someone new to the Belgian football scene would not know that Sylla’s score was a genesis of hope for the Blau-Zwart.

A ‘rebuilding’ phase

In Brugge’s last campaign, Brugge had to play in a Group of Death with Manchester City, PSG, and RB Leipzig. The six-game adventure throughout Europe was miserable. Brugge’s 2-1 away win over Leipzig was the closest they would get to experiencing happiness. They suffered a 5-0 loss to Leipzig and a 1-5 loss to City. Brugge barely managed to scrape four points in the tough group. Although Brugge might have flopped in the Champions League, they played well in the Belgian domestic league, maintaining a respectable third place.

Only weeks after Brugge bowed out of the group stage, Phillippe Clement jumped ship for an attractive job as Monaco manager. Stuck without a permanent manager and disgraced by their tumultuous time in the Champions League, critics pointed toward a rebuilding season for Brugge. It would be near-impossible to maintain a sense of continuity with a new manager at the beginning of the season.

Yet, miraculously, Brugge kept up its impeccable form. Alfred Schreuder strung together win after win as manager. Brugge fought to finish second, clinching a spot in the playoffs. Brugge seemed to score at will, and their defense was impenetrable. When the time came for the round-robin to determine who would clinch a Champions League spot, Brugge finished undefeated, winning the league title by four points.

In Schreuder’s 18 league games, he only lost one and drew three. Of course, credit also goes to midfield pair Charles De Ketelaere and Hans Vanaken, who combined for 32 goals. Yet, the fact that Schreuder steadied the boat and led Brugge to a league title was unbelievable.

It was even more unbelievable when Schreuder left.

Transition phase

Club Brugge are Belgian champions, but with Carl Hoefkens replacing Schreuder as coach, this feels like a season of transition,” Guardian writer Jonathan Wilson wrote. The fiery soundbite came just seconds before he put Brugge at fourth in the group. Brugge fans shrugged.

Not only did their star manager Schreuder leave for Ajax, yet De Ketelaere left for Milan, and Brugge let prolific goalscoring forward Bas Dost’s contract explain. The team’s most recognizable faces had all left, leaving nothing but a pot of pessimism stewing in Bruges.

The team not only looked destined for yet another mediocre Champions League group stage, but they were shaky and inconsistent. They battled to a 3-2 win over Genk in a heart-stopping season opener but lost 1-2 to perennial relegation candidate Eupen only days later Brugge’s season was shrouded with mystery, and only the Champions League group stage would lift that fog.

“There is no way we can be happy with this result; we need to take this and move forward,” Mignolet said after losing to Eupen. “Today we really do not deserve anything more than what we got.”

Uptick in form

Mignolet and Brugge moved forward, winning four straight games. One of their triumphs included a 4-0 rout over city rivals Cercle Brugge. “I think we are getting to the point where we want to be. Winning 4-0 before starting the Champions League is a great boost of confidence,” Mignolet said after claiming their first Bruges Derby win in over a year. “And if it happens against Cercle, well that’s a bonus for our fans.” 

Club Brugge thrives in the Champions League

Over 21-thousand Club Brugge fans howled with excitement in that Champions League debut against Bayer Leerkusen. Sylla scored to put the hosts ahead. The 1-0 scoreline persisted until the final whistle.

Brugge’s win was a fresh breath of air in a polluted environment. The club took that momentum and ran with it. Four different players scored in Portugal as Brugge thrashed Porto, a club that reached the quarterfinals just two seasons ago.

Spanish star Jutgla scored a penalty to give Brugge the advantage, and from there, they never looked back. Kamal Sowah fired a shot from close range early in the second half, Andreas Skov Olsen blasted a shot sent from a deflected cross, and Antonio Nusa took advantage of a through ball, finishing the game with Brugge four goals ahead of Porto.

Inexplicably, Brugge’s dominance in Europe contrasted the struggles in Belgium. A pair of shutout defeats at the hands of Standard Liege and Westerlo preceded a 2-0 win over Atletico Madrid. At this point, Club Brugge picked up nine points from three games in the UEFA Champions League. The club sat on the brink of qualification to the knockout stage before it conceded a goal in the competition.

Brugge locked in that spot in the round of 16 when it traveled down south to the Spanish capital. Atletico launched its biggest weapons. Antoine Griezmann sought to destroy the Brugge back line that was yet to see a ball in the back of its net. Even though Atletico managed 60% possession, 20 total attempts on goal and 12 corners, Brugge held true. In fact, Brugge had a shout to make it four wins from four games as Tajon Buchanan drew a foul in the box. However, the VAR official deemed no foul occurred.

Regardless, Club Brugge punched its ticket to the Champions League round of 16 for the first time in the club’s history.

Simon Mignolet’s heroics the difference for Brugge

Simon Mignolet takes a big breath, bouncing around the two posts he is confined to. Taking a deep breath, he raises his big goalie glove before waving it away like magic. Indeed, many have likened Mignolet to Gandalf. He is immovable and impenetrable. Mignolet is also one of the main reasons Brugge has foiled their opponents.

“You can never give up as a goalkeeper and then you can force luck,” Mignolet confined after a tough 1-0 win over hated rivals Anderlecht. It’s been his motto throughout the ups and downs of Brugge’s 2022 season, and it’s the main reason why “Big Si”, as affectionate fans nickname him, is excelling in every field of play.

Before Brugge’s catastrophic collapse against Porto, Mignolet faced 21 shots on target in four games. He saved all 21 of them, giving him the third-most saves and the clean sheets in the competition. He edged out stars like Alisson, Ederson and Manuel Neuer, all while earning international praise for it. Even in Brugge’s loss to Porto, Mignolet saved 5 shots out of a total 9 shots on target. 

“He deserves a statue [at the Jan Breydel Stadium],” a member of r/soccer confided. As Brugge heads into uncharted European territory, Big Si will lead the way into a new era of Belgian football.

Mignolet and Brugge wrap up their successful group stage run with a game at Bayer Leverkusen on Tuesday at 1:45 p.m. ET.