A glance at the Jupiler Pro League table after six games shows that things are not going quite as expected: Charleroi have a one-point lead over Club Brugge. The latter are the only one of the ‘Big Five’ to be present in the top six, synonymous with being in the end of season playoffs.
Charleroi have been improving every season in the last five years. With Mehdi Bayat in the backroom and Felice Mazzù pulling the strings, they are now Wallonia’s top club: hard to beat, strength where it matters and they play the full 90 minutes. ‘Mazzù-time’ is a well-known phrase in the city and a homage to Sir Alex.
They are a team without real stars, or at least without ‘big names’, but players like Amara Baby and Nurio Fortuna always pull their weight. This season, Dodi Lukebakio – on loan from Anderlecht with an option to buy – has looked the part and been selected for the national U21 team.
Surprises at the top
The other four clubs currently making up the top six are Mouscron, Sint Truiden, Royal Antwerp and Zulte Waregem. To say that that is surprising would be an understatement. Three of those teams would be on most people’s lists as possible relegation candidates.
However, Mouscron, saved from bankruptcy by Pini Zahavi, are flying under coach Mircea Rednic. Rednic has overseen the transfers and Jonathan Bolingi, on loan from Standard with an option to buy, has already scored five goals. The Congolese striker has the ambition to be the league’s leading scorer.
Sint Truiden changed their coach after two games and the in-coming Jonas De Roeck (37) seems to be enjoying himself. They’ve already beaten Anderlecht, Gent and Standard and Roland Duchâtelet will be hoping to fulfill his ambition to get Sint Truiden into the playoffs.
Royal Antwerp are back in the first division with Luciano D’Onofrio in the back office. Jelle Van Damme has arrived from the USA and it is remarkable how many players at clubs like Antwerp, Sint Truiden and Mouscron have their roots at Sclessin.
Making up the top six are Zulte Waregem. No surprise there as Francky Dury can be counted on to build a team every 12 months. In the ranks are Julien de Sart, on loan from Middlesbrough and Aaron Leya Iseka, best known for being Michy Batshuayi’s brother.
Whatever happened to the ‘Big Five’?
These are early days but there is something in the air. Certainly, the big clubs are struggling and it’s not easy to explain the reasons why.
Anderlecht, currently 10th, started as favourites to regain their title but they’ve lost their mojo as well as Yuri Tielemans. Leander Dendoncker was a more influential figure last season but he spent August thinking about his ‘potential’ move to Monaco and it showed. Anderlecht did sign Sven Kums from Udinese/Watford but he’s not gelled with Swiss coach Rene Weiler. The same could be said for Matz Sels – signed from Newcastle – and there seems to be a difference in opinion between Weiler and the management. Anderlecht have only scored six goals in six games and that spells trouble. Emilio Ferrera has been appointed to look after the U21s and the experienced coach may be ‘Plan B’.
Two points behind Anderlecht are Standard Liege. Standard have become a bit of a basket case in recent years, even missing out on the playoffs in the last two seasons. They have another new coach, Ricardo Sá Pinto, but he has had little effect to-date. They’ve won one game in six and scored three goals. Their best result came at the weekend with the 0-0 draw against Charleroi. New signing, Brazilian Carlinhos looked useful but he could be just a single swallow.
Equal on points with Anderlecht, but 8th on goal difference, are Racing Genk. Genk, under Albert Stuivenberg, have been performing as a mid-table team and are now happy to have Alejandro Pozuelo back from injury. Results have to improve and first they need to tighten up at the back.
In much worse state are Gent. Champions a couple of seasons ago, Gent sold their best players – who have all struggled at their new clubs – and haven’t succeeded in building a replacement team. After six games, Gent have no wins and are in the penultimate position in the league. Coach Hein Vanhaezebrouck has a lot of power at the club but there could be a bust-up if something doesn’t change soon.
If there was one club who looked set to turn the Big Five into the Big Six it was Oostende, owned by the charismatic Marc Coucke. So far this season, it’s gone pear-shaped. At the weekend they won their first point of the season, against 10-man KV Mechelen. They sold star striker Landry Dimata to Wolfsburg and his replacement, Zinho Gano, looks a bit like a panic buy. Coach Yves Vanderhaeghe is under pressure as Coucke is ambitious.
Club Brugge are performing well in the league – until this weekend – but have been a disaster in Europe. After qualifying for the early rounds of the Champions league, they lost to Istanbul Başakşehir (3-5) and were then dumped out of the Europa League by AEK Athens (0-3). Also with a new coach, in Ivan Leko, only a title win will now keep him in the job.
August is over and the next few months in Belgium could be very interesting. Two clubs have changed their coach so far, Sint Truiden and Lokeren, but that number could increase soon.