Apr 27

JPL Playoffs Round 4: Anderlecht start playing while Club Brugge keep on fighting back

Playoffs 1

There were important wins for Anderlecht and Charleroi as the playoffs approached the halfway stage. Plumbing the depths were Standard Liege who lost again and were roundly condemned by many. Michel Preud’homme’s Club Brugge again looked to be down and out – this time at Gent – but once more they fought back and managed to salvage a point.

Olivier Deschacht (back, second from the right) lines up before facing Arsenal. (copyright John Chapman)

Olivier Deschacht (back, second from the right) lines up before facing Arsenal. (copyright John Chapman)

Besnik Hasi kept the same Anderlecht side that lost at the Jan Breydel stadium and was proved right as his charges put five goals past a sad-looking Kortrijk. Remarkably, 34 year-old centre back Olivier Deschacht scored the first two goals, both with his head (he’s never before scored in that way). It was the indefatigable Deschacht’s 68th consecutive game for Anderlecht. One of his best friends is Kortrijk coach Yves Vanderhaeghe who was not impressed; threatening to postpone their weekly lunch date.

One welcome sign for the Brussels side was that the goals were spread throughout the team and not restricted to Aleksander Mitrovic. As for the fans, @Tejkarafi felt Anderlecht had just started their campaign while @olliman0085 reasoned a more audacious Anderlecht (and one with fewer Injuries) would have meant more points. Youri Tielemans has certainly come back refreshed but several observers reason that Chancel Mbemba’s return at centre back has been a bigger factor.

Hein Van Haezebrouck’s Gent looked to be heading to the top of the table after Swiss midfielder Danijel Miličević had made it 2-0 in the first half against Club Brugge. But it was not to be. Maybe it was Preud’homme’s introduction of Tom De Sutter, who worried the Gent defence, or perhaps it was that Gent’s players already had their minds on Thursday’s home clash with Anderlecht. Van Haezebrouck’s men are still second however and the party line is that their ambition is to simply be in the top three.

On Saturday, it was the Battle of Wallonia as Charleroi faced Standard Liege. It was no classic and the three points went to the Carolos. There was plenty of criticism for coach Jose Riga and, unlike Preud’homme, he seemed to have no idea what to do in terms of substitutions. @Standard_Yid wrote in to say that Riga will never be good enough to take the club forward and should go. From Ireland, @JBreen8 felt that “Igor De Camargo’s effort level was unacceptable and he shouldn’t have the captain’s armband.” He added that the club needs new owners.

Results: Anderlecht 5 Kortrijk 1; Charleroi 1 Standard 0; Gent 2 Club Brugge 2.

Standings: Club Brugge 38, Gent 36, Anderlecht 35, Charleroi 32, Standard 30, Kortrijk 30.

Man of the weekend: Deschacht (Anderlecht).

Next games

The games come thick and fast now with matches on Tuesday (Kortrijk-Standard), Wednesday (Club Brugge-Charleroi) and Thursday (Gent-Anderlecht). Club Brugge will need to be on their mettle against a Charleroi team that is on a bit of a roll.

Playoffs 2

After a complicated procedure, the winner of the Playoffs 2 will play the team finishing fourth in the Playoffs 1, for a place in the Europa League.

In Group A, Genk managed to defeat KV Mechelen (1-0) after losing to the same opposition by four goals last week. One of those two will win the group – both have home games next Saturday. Genk fans, however, are more ambitious, @DannyWelbeckham “hopes that (Peter) Maes takes us forward next season, there have been rough times for us Genk fans the last few seasons.” @tremans, though, questioned whether the Playoffs 02 could really be counted as football.

In Group B, Lokeren are unbeaten and seem to be on the way to win that group.

Playoffs 3

It’s all over now … for Cercle Brugge. Destroyed by a rejuvenated Lierse, they are relegated to division 2. Meanwhile, Lierse have to get ready for another six games – against Eupen, Leuven and Lommel to see who goes up to division 1 or (in Lierse’s case) stays there. @SeppeDams was not impressed with Lierse’s escape – he stated “(If) you’re last, you’re out.”

Leading scorers

Mitrovic (Anderlecht) 17; Emond (Beveren) 14; Santini (Kortrijk) 14.

Assists

Refaelov (Club Brugge) 11; Chevalier (Kortrijk), Patosi (Lokeren), Vazquez (Club Brugge) 10.

Apr 20

JPL Playoffs Round 3: MPH turns it around

Anderlecht's Serb striker Aleksandar Mitrovic (picture: Srdjan Stevanovic/Starsportphoto)

Anderlecht’s Serb striker Aleksandar Mitrovic (picture: Srdjan Stevanovic/Starsportphoto)

Playoffs 1

The big winners of the third round of matches were Michel Preud’homme and Hein van Haezebrouck. The latter’s team, Gent, became the first team to win a ‘Playoff 01’ match on an away ground when they went to Sclessin and easily defeated a poor Standard Liege. Preud’homme’s Club Brugge looked to be down and out against Anderlecht but the introduction of Obbi Oulare changed the game and gave the three points to the home side.

Anderlecht brought back Youri Tielemans, who looked the part, and had Chancel Mbemba in his favoured position in the middle of the defence. An Aleksander Mitrovic goal looked like it was enough for the three points but they reckoned without Club Brugge’s substitute Oulare. The big striker’s strength and speed were too much for Anderlecht and they were guilty of bad misses and sleeping when Oulare and Ruud Vormer scored from Victor Vazquez free-kicks. The Brussels team had good reason to be annoyed about a good goal being disallowed and a penalty not being given but the defeat could have been avoided.

Van Haezebrouck’s Gent outplayed a Standard side that missed the skill and experience of Mehdi Carcela. Gent’s forgotten man, Danish striker Nicklas Pedersen, was the hero of the night with two goals in a 3-1 win. Pedersen was signed from KV Mechelen 18 months ago as a replacement for ‘Pele’ Mboyo who moved to Genk but he’s hardly featured this term under Van Haezebrouck and his selection was a surprise. Gent were top for 48 hours and it would not be a surprise to see them back in the top spot soon.

In the third game, Van Haezebrouck’s replacement at Kortrijk, Yves Vanderhaeghe, looked to be on his way to three points against Charleroi but the Carolos have a fighting spirit these days and the equaliser came from substitute Kalifa Coulibaly.

Obbi Oulare - turmed the game In Club Brugge's favour. (image - Voetbalprimeur.be)

Obbi Oulare – turmed the game In Club Brugge’s favour. (image – Voetbalprimeur.be)

Next weekend, in the top two clash, Club Brugge visit Gent just three days after their Europa League Quarter Final second leg in Kiev. Going for the treble is hard work but for the game in Kiev, Preud’homme hopes to have Oscar Duarte back in defence and he’ll have a Vasquez with more minutes in his legs after his return from injury. It should be ones of the games of playoffs.

Results: Standard 1, Gent 3; Club Brugge 2, Anderlecht 1; Kortrijk 1, Charleroi 1.

Standings: Club Brugge 37, Gent 35, Anderlecht 32, Standard 30, Kortrijk 30, Charleroi 29.

Man of the weekend: Oulare (Club Brugge).

Playoffs 2

After a complicated procedure, the winner of the Playoffs 2 will play the team finishing fourth in the Playoffs 1, for a place in the Europa League.

In Group A, KV Mechelen destroyed Genk 4-0 and are strong favourites after three straight wins. In Group B, Lokeren scored five at Mouscron and it’s between those two to see who tops the group. Oostende got their first points by beating Westerlo.

Playoffs 3

This week, Lierse won at Cercle Brugge in the third match of the five-game series and now it’s all-square.

Leading scorers

Mitrovic (Anderlecht) 16; Emond (Beveren) 14; Santini (Kortrijk) 14 .

Assists

Refaelov (Club Brugge) 11; Chevalier (Kortrijk (10); Patosi (Lokeren) 9.

Apr 13

More than just a big time Charly

Charly Musonda Jr after a Belgium U17 game in 2012 (John Chapman copyright)

Charly Musonda Jr after a Belgium U17 game in 2012 (John Chapman copyright)

With Charly Musonda Jr. wearing the number 10 shirt for Chelsea as they won the 2015 UEFA Youth League by beating Shakhtar Donetsk, it’s time for a look back at where he came from and some thoughts about where he’s going.

I’ve seen Musonda play – live – on two occasions. The first time was with the Belgium U17 team in 2012 and the second time was last year with the Belgium U21 side. As you can see from the images here, he’s done some growing but he’s still on the slight side if he wants to make it in the Premier League or elsewhere.

Musonda was born in Brussels in 1996. His father is Charly Musonda Sr. who played over 100 matches for Anderlecht in the 80s and 90s. Musonda Sr. was a Zambian international whose career was hampered by injuries. In 1993, he was selected to play for Zambia in Senegal but didn’t travel as he was under treatment. Musonda was extremely fortunate as the plane carrying the team crashed. There were no survivors.

Charly Musonda Jr. has two football-playing brothers, Lamisha (22) and Tika (20). Charly Jr. was rated as Anderlecht’s finest prospect in the youth ranks, but such is the power of the Premier League, he was signed by Chelsea at the age of 15 before he signed professionally with Anderlecht. Chelsea were so keen to get Charly that they also signed his two brothers – a kind of family package deal.

As expected, Lamisha and Tika have faded from the scene. Even Charly’s progress has not been as spectacular as expected; he’s 18 and seems far from getting a first team debut. Others have taken different routes. Youri Tielemans, aged 17, has played over 50 games in the Anderlecht first team. Dennis Praet is approaching 100 games for Anderlecht, aged 20, and looks likely to move in the summer – possibly to Atletico Madrid.

When I saw Musonda Jr. play for Belgium U17s against the Netherlands, he looked about 14 and was brilliant for 45 minutes. When I saw him a few months ago for the U21s against Norway, he was the outstanding player on the field, creating and scoring goals.

Musonda after playing for Belgium U21s in 2014 (copyright John Chapman)

Musonda after playing for Belgium U21s in 2014 (copyright John Chapman)

Musonda is full of tricks and the Dutch defenders could not get close to him before he tired. The same was true of the Norwegian youngsters as he’s clever, reads the game well and can pass a ball, long and short.

Sint Truiden coach Yannick Ferrera was in charge of the Anderlecht youth team some years ago and his charges included Romelu Lukaku, Adnan Januzaj and Charly Musonda Jr. He rates the last-named as the most talented player he’s ever coached.

He’s obviously rated at Chelsea too and if there’s a player he’s similar to in style, it’s Eden Hazard. That can only be good for Belgium; if Musonda can put on some muscle, he could be ready for the next World Cup in Moscow. But that depends on him getting first team football. With Chelsea’s record of bringing through young players – it’s not good – it could be argued that he should have got himself established at Anderlecht before moving on.

Another player he could be likened to is Enzo Scifo. Times were different back in the 1980s but he struggled in Italy with Inter and in France with Bordeaux after leaving Anderlecht aged 21. It’s always a tough call for the really talented youngsters to know when they should move to a bigger club. Nowadays money talks. Musonda Jr. will probably earn a decent living somewhere but whether he will have the career that his talent deserves has yet to be seen.

Apr 13

JPL Playoffs Round 2: The favourites are looking tired

Neeskens Kebano - the main man for Charleroi. Image - RTBF

Neeskens Kebano – the main man for Charleroi. Image – RTBF

Playoffs 1
In the second round of matches, as in the first, all three home teams won. This means that the positions in the table are exactly the same as at the end of the classic season. The performance of the second round came from Standard Liege who defeated Anderlecht 3-1 with two goals and an assist from the returning Imoh Ezekiel. Anderlecht didn’t turn up and Besnik Hasi’s rather bizarre selection and formation (Frank Acheampong behind the striker, Dennis Praet on the wing, Chancel Mbemba at right back etc.) was no help.

Club Brugge showed the first signs of playing on three fronts this season and were well beaten by a Kortrijk side that was tactically and physically better. Finally, although Gent had enough possession to win, Charleroi took the three points with a double from Neeskens Kebano – the second in the 92nd minute. Kebano started at PSG and now has a point to prove. It would be no surprise if he moved in the summer.

Results: Kortrijk 2 Club Brugge 0; Charleroi 2 Gent 1; Standard 3 Anderlecht 1.

Standings: Club Brugge 34, Gent 32, Anderlecht 32, Standard 30, Kortrijk 29, Charleroi 28.

Men of the weekend: Ezekiel (Standard) and Kebano (Charleroi).

Playoffs 2

After a complicated procedure, the winner of the Playoffs 2 will play the team finishing fourth in the Playoffs 1, for a place in the Europa League.
In Group A, KV Mechelen and Genk both won again and will play each other next weekend. In Group B, Mouscron won and have a two-point lead at the top.
Note that Zulte Waregem, Beveren and Oostende have yet to gain any points.

Playoffs 3

Cercle Brugge won at Lierse in the second match of the five-game series and now have a three-point lead.

Leading scorers
Mitrovic (Anderlecht) 15; Emond (Beveren) 13; Santini (Kortrijk) 13.

Assists
Refaelov (Club Brugge) 11; Chevalier (Kortrijk (10); Patosi (Lokeren) 9.

Apr 07

JPL Playoffs – how they look at the end of Weekend 1

Playoffs 1

During the first weekend of the Playoffs 1, all of the three top teams won. Neither Anderlecht nor Club Brugge played particularly well but they took the three points, as did Gent. Standard were particularly

Steven Defour - in midfield for Anderlecht.

Steven Defour – in midfield for Anderlecht.

unlucky at the Jan Breydel stadium as they lost to two penalties, the second of which was extremely dodgy. Charleroi played well at the Constant Vanden Stock stadium but came away with nothing. Mitrovic scored again for Anderlecht – they are totally dependent on him – and if he finishes leading scorer, it will multiply the chance of him moving in the summer.

Results: Gent 2 Kortrijk 0; Club Brugge 2 Standard 1; Anderlecht 1 Charleroi 0.

Standings: Club Brugge 34, Gent 32, Anderlecht 32, Standard 27, Kortrijk 26, Charleroi 25.

Playoffs 2

After a complicated procedure, the winner of the Playoffs 2 will play the team finishing fourth in the Playoffs 1, for a place in the Europa League.
In Group A, KV Mechelen and Genk are looking good, while in Group B, Mouscron and Lokeren are ahead.

Playoffs 3

Lierse beat Cercle Brugge and it’s all square now in the five-game series!

Leading scorers

Mitrovic (Anderlecht) 15; Emond (Beveren) 13; Santini (Kortrijk) 13.

Assists

Refaelov (Club Brugge) 11; Chevalier (Kortrijk (10); Patosi (Lokeren) 9.

Apr 06

Form guide for the JPL Playoffs 2014-15

Anderlecht & Club Brugge, favourites for the title.

Anderlecht-Club Brugge is a big game next weekend.

The main JPL Playoffs (see here) started this weekend. (Ed: Gent beat Kortrijk 2-0). The top six (Club Brugge, Gent, Standard Liege, Anderlecht, Charleroi and Kortrijk) will play each other twice in the next six weeks. The clubs receive half of the points gained in the “classic” season. So the clubs started as follows: Club Brugge 31, Gent & Anderlecht 29, Standard Liege 27, Kortrijk 26, Charleroi 25.

The classic season and a forecast

Michel Preud’homme’s Club Brugge have been the in-form team for most of the season but have dropped points in recent weeks. They are playing for the Treble, having won the Belgian Cup and still being in the chase for the Europa League – they play Dnipro in the last eight later this month.

Anderlecht showed good form in Europe but injuries have played havoc with their league form. Gent have moved quietly along under the inventive stewardship of Hein Vanhaezebrouck and finished the classic season in second place, on goal difference ahead of Anderlecht. Standard Liege have been in turmoil for most of the season but started to move through the pack during 2015. Kortrijk and Charleroi are rank outsiders; it’s good to see Wallonia with two teams in the top six: Standard and Charleroi.

Last season I forecast a win for Club Brugge but it’s taken Preud’homme longer than I thought to get things organised. I’m staying with them for this season. Here’s a look at the six clubs in the championship playoffs. (positions and points are before the start of the Playoffs).

Club Brugge (1st with 31 points)

Preud’homme took over in September 2013 and was given the job of bringing the title back to Brugge for the first time since 2005. He almost did the job last season but failed in the run-in. Preud’homme has now shipped out some of the bigger names – Vadis Odjidja and Maxime Lestienne – and they’ve not been missed. Shrewd transfers and young bloods have done the job and Club Brugge now have a useful squad with a good bench.

Timmy Simons - captain of Club Brugge (copyright John Chapman).

Timmy Simons – captain of Club Brugge (copyright John Chapman).

The star of the team has been Australian keeper Matt Ryan, who has been rumoured to be on his way to Liverpool in the summer. Ryan was the hero of the Cup Final along with Israeli midfielder Lior Refaelov. Argentine playmaker Victor Vazquez was pulling the strings for most of the season but he’s been out for some weeks. In his absence, Preud’homme has tended to play more defensively but the results have kept on coming.

Injuries have hit the team defensively with Thomas Meunier, Oscar Duarte and Bjorn Engels (long-term) all missing the start of the playoffs. In attack, Club Brugge are well-served with Tom De Sutter, José Izquierdo and Obbi Oulare to name but three.

Leading goalscorer in classic season: José Izquierdo (10).
Top player in the season: Ryan
One to watch: Oulare
Odd fact: Club Brugge have not won the title for 10 years.

Gent (2nd with 29 points)

Gent have never won the title. Their best performance was in 2009-10, under Preud’homme, when they were runners-up. They also won the Cup and Super Cup that year but slumped after Preud’homme was tempted by a stint in the Eredivisie with Twente.

After Preud’homme there have been, remarkably, eight coaches, but only the current one – Vanhaezebrouck – has looked the part. He is inventive, flexible and believes in the power of a group rather than individual stars. Vanhaezebrouck has said he’ll be happy with third place and that would be an excellent achievement in his first season at the club.

The coach has talked of the squad being on “an adventure” and with Vanhaezebrouck in charge and with the team playing in the most modern stadium in Belgium, it looks that way. A few troublemakers have been moved out and Vanhaezebrouck now has the squad he wanted, although he recently said he needs more leadership on the pitch.

Nigerian teenager Moses Simon joined the club in January and has become a crowd favourite with his skill, speed and goals. Gent said recently that he would only leave for 20 million euros – Vanhaezebrouck will be hoping nobody comes with the money.

Leading goalscorer in classic season: Laurent Depoitre (12).
Top player in the season: Matz Sels (keeper)
One to watch: Simon
Odd fact: Gent have a mental coach – Eva Maenhout.

Anderlecht (equal 2nd with 29 points)

Last season before the playoffs started, I wrote that Anderlecht’s season had been “chaotic.” They then went ahead and won the title. It could happen again as this season has been pretty chaotic too. Back in July, everyone said that Anderlecht had the best squad but they’ve been hit by injuries and loss of form.

Youri Tielemans warms up before the kick-off against Arsenal.

Youri Tielemans warms up before the kick-off against Arsenal.

It’s a worry that Anderlecht’s best form has been shown in the Champions League where they were somewhat unlucky not to qualify for the group stages. Maybe some of the players turned it on as they were in the shop window as the same personnel did not look so good when travelling to Oostende or Mouscron.

As usual Silvio Proto has been the best and most consistent performer. No one else has been that dependable throughout the season. Aleksander Mitrovic has blown hot and cold, the same could be said about Youri Tielemans in his second season and others such as Andy Najar and Anthony Vanden Borre have not lived up to their reputations. The biggest revelation has been Leander Dendoncker who has shown himself to be a mature performer at a young age. As for Steven Defour, Dennis Praet and Chancel Mbemba, they have looked good when they have played but they have not played enough.

Leading goalscorer in classic season: Mitrovic (14).
Top player in the season: Proto
One to watch: Praet
Odd fact: Since the playoffs started, Anderlecht have only lost the title once.

Standard Liege (4th with 27 points)

The problem with following Standard Liege is that the coaching staff and the team are constantly changing. Since last season, Michy Batshuayi, William Vainqueur, Laurent Ciman, Imoh Ezekiel and a couple of coaches have all moved out. In the case of Ezekiel, he moved to Qatari outfit Al-Arabi, got homesick, re-joined Standard on loan and promptly got himself injured.

José Riga is the current coach but it’s not obvious how long he will last. Standard have become a team without stars and it’s not clear that the team has the collective spirit to make up for that. Ezekiel could be a match winner but he needs to get fit. Otherwise, Alexander Scholz has looked a useful replacement for Ciman, Julien De Sart shows promise in midfield and Igor De Camargo is having one of his better seasons up front. The problem with Standard is that no one knows what to expect.

Leading goalscorer in classic season: De Camargo (10).
Top player in the season: Not obvious
One to watch: De Sart.
Odd fact: Standard have the second best points per game record in the Playoffs since they started in 2009-10.

Kortrijk (5th with 26 points)

Hein Vanhaezebrouck - settling in at Gent (picture - http://www.kaagent.be/)

Hein Vanhaezebrouck – settling in at Gent (picture – http://www.kaagent.be/)

Kortrijk replaced Vanhaezebrouck by ex-Anderlecht midfielder Yves Vanderhaeghe. He’s done a good job and has had the team playing in own image – full of enthusiasm and never-say-dieism. They have a couple of useful strikers in Ivan Santini and Teddy Chevalier, Gertjan De Mets has been ever-present in midfield while Laurent Henkinet has surprisingly kept Darren Keet out of the team since the CAN.

Leading goalscorer in classic season: Santini (13).
Top player in the season: Chevalier
One to watch: Adam Marusic
Odd fact: Vanderhaeghe joined Anderlecht aged 30 and played over 150 games for the club.

Charleroi (6th with 25 points)

Les Carolos are the surprise guests at the Playoffs. Most observers expected Racing Genk to make up the numbers but Alex McLeish’s men had a bad day at the office on the final day of the season, letting in Charleroi.

Charleroi have a talented young-ish coach in Felice Mazzù. This is his first spell in the first division and he’s surely set for a top career in the Belgian league. The star player is 23 year-old Neeskens Kebano, once of PSG. He makes and takes goals and last year he opted to play for the D.R. Congo rather than France, who he had represented at the youth level. Charleroi’s problem has been scoring goals with only 44 in the classic season. However, Mazzù has worked miracles in getting his charges into the playoffs and who knows how far they can go.

Leading goalscorer in classic season: Kebano (8).
Top player in the season: Kebano
One to watch: Kebano
Odd fact: Charleroi are one of three Walloon (French-speaking) clubs in the Belgian league – 16 clubs.

Apr 05

All you need to know about the Jupiler Pro League Playoffs

Thibaut Courtois - a key player for Genk in the 2010-11 Playoffs (copyright John Chapman)

Thibaut Courtois – a key player for Genk in the 2010-11 Playoffs (copyright John Chapman)

The Jupiler Pro League Playoffs have been controversial since their introduction in the 2009-2010 season. The system, it that’s a legitimate word, was introduced to make the league more financially viable – more games between the big clubs – but in its current format it falsifies the league and the vast majority of fans would welcome its demise.
Modus operandi

It ‘works’ like this. In the regular season, the 16 league clubs play each other twice. The top six teams in the league then go into a pool that again play each other twice in a mini-championship. The six teams start that pool (‘Playoffs 1’) with – and this is the part that really makes a mockery of the Jupiler Pro League – just half of the points that they gained in the championship proper. After the required 30 ‘playoff’ games are completed, the winner of ‘Playoffs 1’ is declared champion and goes directly into the Champions League pool stage; the runners–up go into the qualification stages of that tournament, while the third-placed club enters the Europa League.

But that’s not all. At the end of the classic season, the teams that finish in positions 7th to 14th split into two groups of four. The top teams in each group then play each other (home and away) to determine the winner of the ‘Playoffs 2’. That team then meets the team finishing 4th in the ‘Playoffs 1’ with the prize being entry to the Europa League. This means that a team finishing 14th could eventually qualify for Europe; Racing Genk did just that in 2009-2010, the first season the playoffs were introduced, after finishing 11th in the league under Franky Vercauteren.

Club Brugge's Timmy Simons - has played most minutes for his club this season  ( Copyright John Chapman)

Club Brugge’s Timmy Simons – has played most minutes for his club this season ( Copyright John Chapman)

The icing on this somewhat messy cake is that, during this time, the teams finishing 15th and 16th play each other five times! This is the ‘Playoffs 3’, with the team finishing 15th having a three points start and being able to play three of the five-match series at home. Based on points accumulated after these five games, if all five are needed, the winner goes into – yet another – series of playoffs with the teams finishing 2nd, 3rd and 4th (more or less but it’s more complex than that) in the Belgian second division, to determine who will enter / stay in the Jupiler Pro League. The team losing the five games mini-series (between 15th and 16th) is relegated directly to the second division.

Playoff history (main playoffs only)

With the idea of the playoffs being to generate more cash from TV and gate receipts, the bigger clubs were not at all happy in 2009-10 when lesser lights Sint Truiden, Kortrijk and Zulte Waregem all qualified for the ‘Playoffs 1’. In the event, Anderlecht easily won both the classic season and the title.

The next season brought excitement and took two players to Chelsea: Thibaut Courtois and Kevin De Bruyne. Anderlecht won the 2010-11 season ‘proper’ by one point from Racing Genk, with Standard Liege 16 points adrift of the ‘champions’. Standard, led by Jelle Van Damme and Axel Witsel, then went through the playoffs unbeaten, winning eight of their 10 matches. With a Boussoufa-less Anderlecht (he moved to Russia in March of that season) dropping out of contention, it went down to the last game of the season at Genk, with Standard the visitors. Genk snatched a draw with Courtois performing brilliantly in the Genk goal. The rest, as they say, is history. Genk were champions with Courtois and coach Franky Vercauteren then going their different ways, leaving Genk to stumble into the Champions League, with De Bruyne staying at the club on loan from Chelsea.

The 2011-12 season’s playoffs were not particularly interesting with Anderlecht winning both the classic season and the title. The following season was different as there was another close finish. Zulte Waregem – with Thorgan Hazard – punched well above their weight to come within minutes of clinching the title in the final game at Anderlecht. In the event, Lucas Biglia equalised after Waregem had almost achieved the unthinkable by taking the lead at the Constant Vanden Stock stadium. The Brussels club therefore won the championship for the second successive season.

Anderlecht won the title last season with a late flourish in the playoffs.

Anderlecht won the title last season with a late flourish in the playoffs.

Anderlecht won again last season as Besnik Hasi took over the side just before the Playoffs and then led the Brussels club to its third successive title after it seemed that first Standard Liege and then Club Brugge looked to be certain winners.

Overall statistics

This season’s qualifiers are Standard Liege, Club Brugge, Anderlecht, Gent, Kortrijk and Charleroi. This gives the Playoffs a somewhat different look from the last two seasons. This means that two clubs (Anderlecht and Club Brugge) have qualified in all six seasons, Standard Liege have qualified in five seasons, Gent and Genk in four seasons, while three clubs (Zulte Waregem, Kortrijk and Lokeren) have qualified in three seasons. Sint Truiden and Charleroi have each qualified once for the Playoffs 1.

Anderlecht have won four of the five playoff titles (since 2009-2010) with Racing Genk winning the other one. Anderlecht have won the most playoff points (90), scored the most goals (87) and have the best points per game average (1.80).

Mar 27

A week in the day of Belgofoot

I’m getting back into the Belgofoot business after a bit of a break. The international team are meeting up again for their European qualification games and I managed to take in the Belgian Cup Final last weekend in Brussels. Following that come the infamous Belgian Playoffs.

First up was the Cup Final. It was a match of high-risk as some of the fans of Anderlecht and Club Brugge are not on particularly good terms. The police were out in their thousands and there was indeed trouble in the centre of Brussels. That was caused primarily by fans of ADO Den Haag who felt that they had sufficient affinity with Club Brugge supporters to warrant travelling to Brussels where they clashed with the fans of Anderlecht.

Eden Hazard - happy . (copyright - John Chapman)

Eden Hazard – happy . (copyright – John Chapman)

There were about 30 arrests and quite a lot of collateral damage. This didn’t get a lot of media attention, certainly not compared to the incident of Standard Liege banner a few weeks ago. The game itself was a good one – with two goals in the last couple of minutes – and the Cup going to Michel Preud’homme’s Club Brugge. He’s a coach who has a habit of bringing success to clubs who have not won trophies for many years.

The Belgium team next play Cyprus in Brussels and then fly to Tel-Aviv to take on Israel, who these days play in the European championships. One of the main talking points these days is whether Eden Hazard and Kevin De Bruyne can play together? They are becoming Belgium’s answer to Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard – in days of yore.

De Bruyne has been the main playmaker for Belgium in recent games and he has been on tremendous form for Wolfsburg, creating more goals than anyone else in Europe. Eden Hazard is of course … Eden Hazard.
When Belgium played Wales, Hazard wanted to get more into the game – as he has rarely sparkled for Belgium – and he more or less forced De Bruyne out to the centre. The media picked this up and created a story about whether the two were compatible. Marc Wilmots then stated he would move De Bruyne out to the wing, later saying he had said that to keep the media quiet.

Kevin de Bruyne - in superb form for Wolfsburg. (copyright John Chapman).

Kevin de Bruyne – in superb form for Wolfsburg. (copyright John Chapman).

We will see what Wilmots does. Geert De Vlieger – an ex international turned pundit – made the most sane remark, saying good players will learn how to play together.

Yesterday I was invited onto the Cheeky Backheel Show – a podcast based in, I think, Tel-Aviv. I was asked to talk about the Belgium team ahead of the match with Israel next week. It was a enjoyable 20 minutes, hosted by the Sports Rabbi, Josh Halickman. You can hear my ramblings here.

One of the things that’s good about following Belgian football is that you discover that the footballers and ex-footballers you meet are extremely friendly. (Ed: I think he will be name-dropping here.) I had the chance at the Cup Final to meet up with Philippe Albert – who I interviewed a few years ago. At that time, I remember his wife saying they wished they had stayed in the UK for longer as they loved it there. I also had a brief chat with Marc Degryse, who had a spell with Sheffield Wednesday,and he was up for an interview for the blog later in the year. I also spoke to ex Anderlecht midfielder Walter Baseggio, now recovered from thyroid cancer and looking well. He was on good form and looking forward to the Cup Final, which did not disappoint. All three are now media pundits as their careers were too early to allow them to put a few millions in the bank. Times have changed.

Mar 21

All you wanted to know about the Belgian Cup Final

A little history

Anderlecht have looked good in Europe, less so in the league.

Anderlecht have looked good in Europe, less so in the league.

In recent years, the bigger clubs in Belgium have not taken the Belgian Cup very seriously. Anderlecht and Club Brugge have not appeared in the final since, respectively, 2008 and 2007. The last time two of Belgium’s ‘Big Five’ met in the final was in 2008, when Anderlecht beat Gent. In the previous year, Club Brugge defeated Standard.

You have to go back over 20 years, to 1994, to find the last time that Anderlecht met Club Brugge, when Anderlecht won 2-0 at Sclessin. Before that, in 1977, Club Brugge came back from the dead to win 4-3, with two goals from ex-Derby County striker Roger Davies.

Davies was a hero but he was never on the same wavelength as coach Ernst Happel. After one bust-up, Davies said he would never play for Happel again and he never did. Recently Davies said that was the biggest mistake of his career.

Club Brugge – playing on three fronts

Timmy Simons - captain of Club Brugge (copyright John Chapman).

Timmy Simons – captain of Club Brugge (copyright John Chapman).

The two clubs are the joint favorites for the league and are both going for the double. In Club Brugge’s case it’s a treble as they are in the last eight of the Europa League after a thrilling victory against Besiktas just two days ago.

Club Brugge are on a roll and Thomas Meunier recently said the team were like a boxer, ready for the next bout. Their star player is arguably Mat Ryan, with the Australian keeper putting in excellent performances, especially in the big games.

Striker Tom De Sutter is also on form and after spending several years at Anderlecht, including a lot of time on the bench, he will be quietly looking for revenge.

However, coach Michel Preud’homme’s strength has been that he’s cleverly rotated the squad so that he can still turn out a reasonably fresh team despite playing on three fronts.

He can count on the speed of Jose Izquierdo, the experience of captain Timmy Simons and the trickery of Lior Refaelov. Allied to that, he has teenagers Obbi Oulare and Boil Bolinoli Mbombo – Romelu Lukaku’s cousin – who can both make a difference.

Anderlecht – suffering from injuries

This season, Anderlecht have been superb, and sometimes unlucky, in Europe and somewhat off the pace in the league matches. This should mean that they will be up for the game tomorrow but injuries have had an impact in recent weeks and several of the first choices have had little playing time.

Dennis Praet and Steven Defour are said to be fit but it’s not certain they will be ready for 90 minutes. The same is true for Portuguese defender Rolando and German midfielder Marko Marin. One player they can depend on is Leander Dendoncker, 19, who has been playing so consistently that Youri Tielemans is now a bench player at best.

Another player they would love to count on is Aleksander Mitrovic. He’s got himself in shape – physically and mentally – in the last few months but he’s never far away from a fracas.

Differences and conclusions

If all of Anderlecht’s squad were 100% fit, they would have enough quality to start favorites. However, that’s not the case and they have not looked good in their last outings. Club Brugge have been winning games without the injured Victor Vazquez and that has meant that Preud’homme has adapted his tactics so that less risks are taken.

Preud’homme also has a team where goals can come from all over the park. Isquierdo, De Sutter, Refaelov, Felipe Gedoz and Vazquez have all got their share of goals this season. Oulare and Bolongoli have also looked dangerous when they’ve played. In contrast, Anderlecht have relied heavily on Mitrovic, with a few goals from Defour.

The match will be tense in front of a full house. It could get fiery and the match could depend on how coaches use their substitutions. If Club Brugge are not too tired after they Istanbul endeavors, I take them to just edge a thriller against an Anderlecht team that might have too many players not quite fit enough for such a game.

Possible teams

Extremely difficult to forecast the line-ups, especially Club Brugge given their schedule. But here goes …

Anderlecht: Proto, Vanden Borre, Rolando, Deschacht, N’Sakala, Dendoncker, Defour, Praet, Najar, Marin, Mitrovic.

Club Brugge: Ryan, Meunier, Mechele, Duarte, De Bock, Simons, Vormer, Refaelov, Gedoz, Izquierdo, De Sutter.

Mar 19

Nainggolan, Januzaj, Batshuayi and other tricky questions for Wilmots

Belgium - ahead of the game with Wales.

Belgium – ahead of the game with Wales.

It’s been a while since Belgium’s last European qualifying match when they struggled against Wales in Brussels. Next up are the games with Cyprus, at home, and Israel away. Cyprus should not be too difficult but a visit to Israel always comes replete with dangers.

When Marc Wilmots comes to decide on his squad, he’ll notice that he’s not as strong as he once was at centre back. In the past, one of Belgium’s major strengths was the wealth of options in that position. A year ago, Wilmots could count on his captain Vincent Kompany, vice-captain Thomas Vermaelen and as a replacement, Daniel Van Buyten, who was playing some of his best-ever games for Belgium.

Now Van Buyten has hung up his boots, Vermaelen has – sadly – moved to the Barcelona treatment room and Kompany has had the ignominy of being dropped by Manchester City after a string of poor performances. With problems impacting his many business interests, the Belgian captain does not appear to be the calming influence that he once was.

On the positive side, a number of Belgian strikers have started scoring and Kevin De Bruyne has found the form of his life at Wolfsburg. About three years ago, I was interviewed by Chelsea TV and I reasoned that in De Bruyne, Eden Hazard and Thibaut Courtois – all aged 21 or younger at the time – they had the three most talented young Belgians on their books. I got that one right.

Kevin de Bruyne - in superb form for Wolfsburg. (copyright John Chapman).

Kevin de Bruyne – in superb form for Wolfsburg. (copyright John Chapman).

On Friday, Wilmots is due to name 23 players for the two qualifiers. Around 19-20 are certainties but for the other places, there are multiple options. The coach is notoriously conservative and it will be interesting to see how he handles affairs after a four month break. Let’s look at the alternatives.

Keepers

There is no issue here. Courtois is the undisputed number one, for Chelsea and Belgium. Simon Mignolet is back on form for Liverpool but he has no chance of displacing Courtois. For third choice, you could argue that Anderlecht’s Silvio Proto deserves a call-up but I think he’ll stick with Catania’s Jean-François Gillet. There seems little point in bringing in a young keeper with Courtois being aged 22.

In defence – those were the days

Even with Kompany’s well-documented problems, he will be there; other certainties are Jan Vertonghen, Toby Alderweireld and Zenit’s Nic Lombaerts. That will probably be the starting back four and to make up the squad, options include previous choices such as Seb Pocognoli, Laurent Ciman, Anthony Vanden Borre and Celtic’s on-loan Jason Denayer. However, Pocognoli hardly gets a kick these days for the Baggies and Vanden Borre is the antithesis of consistency. And will Wilmots retain Ciman now he’s moved to Toronto FC.

Club Brugge’s right back Thomas Meunier looks more likely to get a call-up, a converted winger he’s been linked to a few Italian clubs. Lazio’s Luis Pedro Cavanda is very unlikely to be in the list, while Standard’s Jelle Van Damme has had injury problems. If Wilmots decides he needs to have eight defenders at his disposal, as he usually does, then Anderlecht veteran Olivier Deschacht may get the nod.

There’s still an embarrassment of riches in central midfield

Of the Italian contingent, Mertens could be in and Nainggolan out.

Of the Italian contingent, Mertens could be in and Nainggolan out.

First the certainties: Axel Witsel, Marouane Fellaini, Moussa Dembélé, Nacer Chadli and De Bruyne. All are in good form with the possible exception of Dembélé but these guys will always be in Wilmots’ squads.
Other options for the squad are Steven Defour, if fit, Roma’s Radja Nainggolan, who should be a certainty in may people’s eyes, Thorgan Hazard, who is starting to make a name for himself in the Bundesliga, and Anderlecht’s Dennis Praet, who made it in the last squad but who has hardly played in recent weeks.,

Some uncertainty on the flanks

Obviously Eden Hazard will be there, along with Napoli’s Dries Mertens. Everton’s Kevin Mirallas has also had injury problems but he should make the cut. With Adnan Januzaj not getting much playing time for Manchester United, Monaco’s Yannick Ferreira-Carrasco is more certain of a place in the squad after a solid season.

In form strikers

Wilmots has suddenly got four strikers who have started scoring. Christian Benteke, Romelu Lukaku, Michy Batshuayi and Divock Origi are all contenders. We need look no further.

Conclusions

In defence, Vanden Borre and Pocognoli could lose their places in the squad with Meunier coming in. Deschacht may get the nod in but I feel Wilmots will be happy with Lombaerts as back up for Vertonghen on the left.

If Defour and Mirallas are deemed fit for action, then both Nainggolan and Januzaj could find themselves on the side-lines. That will be especially tough for the Roma midfielder but he has yet to convince Wilmots that he brings added-value to Belgium.

All hoping to get a call.

All hoping to get a call.

Up-front, I expect Wilmots to stick with his usual three, despite Batshuayi’s form for Marseille. That could change next season if he becomes a certain starter for the French club.

Possible Squad (23)

Thibaut Courtois, Simon Mignolet, Jean-Francois Gillet ; Vincent Kompany, Jan Vertonghen, Toby Alderweireld, Nic Lombaerts, Jason Denayer, Laurent Ciman, Thomas Meunier; Axel Witsel, Marouane Fellaini, Moussa Dembélé, Nacer Chadli, Kevin De Bruyne, Dries Mertens, Eden Hazard, Steven Defour, Kevin Mirallas, Yannick Ferreira-Carrasco; Romelu Lukaku, Divock Origi, Christian Benteke.

Stand-by (If Mirallas and Defour have injury problems).

Radja Nainggolan, Adnan Januzaj, Michy Batshuayi.

Not this time

Anthony Vanden Borre, Dennis Praet, Sébastien Pocognoli, Silvio Proto, Jelle Van Damme, Luis Pedro Cavanda, Thorgan Hazard, Olivier Deschacht, Youri Tielemans, Leander Dendoncker.

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