Sunday could be the day when the title returns to Anderlecht. The club that prides itself on being Belgium’s finest has not won the championship since 2014. Three years is a long time for Anderlecht to be without the title and the cash that comes with direct entry to the Champions League group stage.
On Sunday, Anderlecht visit Club Brugge and a few weeks ago that would have been a shoo-in for the visitors. But times have changed and ‘Club’ have won their last three games, latterly without the legendary Timmy Simons and first-choice keeper Ludovic Butelle, both benched. The man on form has been Columbian winger José Izquierdo. As often happens, the player lost his way after winning the ‘Golden Boot’. He’s now back to his best with a hat-trick against Charleroi.
Renè Weiler has got Anderlecht organised
As for Anderlecht, they went into the Championship playoffs with a lead of one point over Club Brugge and have extended that to four points without any of the champagne football that their fans demand. The statistics don’t make attractive reading – seven goals in seven games – and they have failed to score in four of those matches. Nevertheless, they’ve been the team to beat over the season, conceding just 32 goals in 37 league games, losing seven of them. New coach Renè Weiler has put his stamp on the team, making them a cohesive unit and harder to beat than the rather individualistic gang of players under Besnik Hasi’s charge last season.
Talent in the Anderlecht midfield
All eyes have been on Youri Tielemans of course and he’s certainly had his best season to-date. He’s not the finished article yet though and he will need a few seasons with a team not quite at the top level before he can play with the big boys. Monaco seem to be front runners but anything could happen when the bidding starts for the home-grown Belgian player with the biggest reputation since Romelu Lukaku.
Although Anderlecht’s midfield has benefited from Tielemans’ presence, it’s his colleague Leander Dendoncker who has had a bigger impact. The man from Passendale never stops running, covering and tackling. He’s played more minutes – 4,777 – than anyone else in Europe and he’s destined for the top. Playing in front of the back four, he’s never missed a minute in the league and was impressive in the two games with Manchester United.
Like Tielemans, he’s indicated this could be his last season with Anderlecht (121 matches at the age of 22). Both Tielemans and Dendoncker seem level-headed and are a credit to the club. Both could be in the squad for the World Cup in Russia, assuming Belgium qualify, and next season will be important for them. Roberto Martinez is an admirer of both players and they’ve featured in the qualifiers in recent games. An advantage for Dendoncker is that he can play in the back four, or back three, if required.
Playoffs bringing excitement?
Looking at the Championship Playoffs to-date, they have been disappointing. Created to give more interest to the end of season, there has been little or no excitement. Of the 21 games played, only one – Oostende’s 4-3 victory over Gent – has remained in the memory. If that game is excluded, Gent have scored six goals in six games while Oostende have managed five in the same timeframe. Strangely the crowds for the playoffs have been as good as usual.
Given the dearth of excitement, it’s not surprising that defenders have been the mainstays of the playoffs to-date. One has been outstanding, central defender Uroš Spajić arrived at Anderlecht at the beginning of the season on loan from Toulouse. The Serb international has now signed definitively for the Brussels club after impressing in the centre of defence.
Racing Genk are looking good
The team playing the most attractive football is not in the Championship Playoffs, as Racing Genk missed out by one point. They were over-stretched with their successful run in the Europa League – to the quarter finals – but they are back on track under new coach Albert Stuivenberg, who was assistant to Louis Van Gaal at Manchester United.
Stuivenberg has organised the team and placed the emphasis on building play from the back, long balls are out. He has given a lot of responsibility to Spanish playmaker Alejandro Pozuelo and it’s paid off handsomely. They have already qualified for the Europa League Playoff final (Ed: It’s complicated) being unbeaten in seven games and scoring 20 goals in the process.
It’s remarkable process for a team that lost Wilfred Ndidi to Leicester City and Leon Bailey to Bayern Leverkusen for combined fees of roughly 30 million euros. But that’s not all; teenage defensive midfielder Sander Berge was bought in January to replace Ndidi and is already said to be the subject of a 15 million euro bid from Monaco. Some of Genk’s scouting staff may have moved to pastures new but the secrets linger on.