SINGAPORE - He is just 19, and already he is set for a baptism of fire tonight when his side Club Brugge step out onto the cauldron that is Old Trafford.
For Malaysia-born Belgian teenager Dion Cools, playing against the likes of Wayne Rooney, Juan Mata and Bastian Schweinsteiger is a football education that he has only dreamt of receiving.
Cools, who was born in Kuching to a Belgian father and Malaysian mother, knows that he and his team-mates will have to be at their best if they are to upset the Red Devils in their Champions League play-off match tonight.
He told The Straits Times in an e-mail interview: "It is a match that we are looking forward to but we have been preparing for this match like any other match. I am excited and I hope to start the game in Old Trafford in front of 75,000 fans."
Cools was signed by 13-time Belgian League winners Brugge last month, after an impressive 2014-15 season with another Belgian club, Oud-Heverlee Leuven .
He made his Champions League debut as a substitute in the first leg of their tie against Panathinaikos in the previous round last month, a match which they lost 1-2.
He was then handed a start in the return leg, and went on to score one goal and provide an assist for another, in a Man-of-the-Match display that inspired Brugge to a 3-0 win to earn them a lucrative clash against Louis van Gaal's men.
Set to start at right-back, the 1.85m-tall Cools will have his work cut out trying to keep United's Dutch international winger Memphis Depay at bay.
"United have world-class players and we as a team will have to keep all of them quiet," said Cools, who regards the famous Sarawak laksa and chicken rice as some of his favourite dishes.
"We have to show respect but not too much that we are in awe of their stars. We have to be strong, play to our strengths and not to the strengths of our opponents."
Cools also hopes to eventually emulate Marouane Fellaini and Adnan Januzaj, two Belgian internationals who made the move from Belgian football to star for United in the English Premier League.
"It will be great to play against Fellaini and Januzaj tomorrow," said the Belgian Under-19 international.
"It's every footballer's dream to play in the EPL and it is a future target definitely. The road is still long and there is a lot of work still to be done. Working on that from where I am now is the right thing to do. From there, the rest will follow."
Asked about potentially representing Malaysia one day, the defender plays it cool - just like his surname. He said: "Realistically, my next target is to be selected for Belgium Under-21s. As for my future - Belgium or Malaysia? Time will tell."
This article was first published on Aug 18, 2015.
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