The classic season and a forecast
Standard Liege have led the championship throughout the classic season but their form has dipped of late. Tucked in behind Les Rouches, Michel Preud’homme’s Club Brugge have been looking like a real team while Anderlecht finally sacked John Van den Brom just before the regular season finished. Basnik Hasi is now in charge at the Constant Vanden Stock stadium and he opened his reign with a 4-0 defeat of Oostende.
Zulte Waregem and Genk don’t look to have the depth or the quality, respectively, to challenge for the title this time around while Lokeren will be relaxed after qualifying for the Europa League with their cup win – over Zulte Waregem – last weekend. If I was a betting man, I would go for Club Brugge and Preud’homme’s magic touch.
Here’s a look at the six clubs in the championship playoffs.
Standard Liege (1st with 34 points)
Guy Luzon was unknown when he arrived from Israel to take over at Sclessin. The confident coach has been a real success with Standard leading the league from the first weekend to the last. They had a 10 point lead at one stage but due to a dip in form and the vagaries of the playoff system, that has been cut to two points ahead of the final-run-in. Standard have taken just four points from their last four games and have yet to beat Anderlecht or Club Brugge in the league this season. This tends to indicate that the title run-in will be close and Luzon’s inexperience – at least compared to Preud’homme at Club Brugge – could be a big factor.
The team usually plays 4-4-2 and a key player is William Vainqueur, a French midfielder who works hard in the engine room. Centre back Laurent Ciman has had an excellent season and will probably be rewarded with a place in Marc Wilmots’ 23 for Brazil. That would not please everyone but that’s another story.
Rivalling Batshuayi as player of the season is Japanese keeper Eiji Kawashima who’s been outstanding with a high number of clean sheets. It’s also been good to see young centre back Dino Arslanagic break into the first team and he’s a player who could one day feature for Belgium.
Leading goalscorer in classic season: Batshuayi (18).
Top player in the season: Kawashima
One to watch: Batshuayi.
Odd fact: Of all the clubs in the league, Standard has had the most yellow cards (71); they have also had the most red cards (7) of the six clubs in the playoffs.
Club Brugge (2nd with 32 points)
Club Brugge sacked Juan Carlos Garrido in September and Preud’homme became the club’s 10th coach since they last won the title in 2005. A lot of mistakes have been made on and off the pitch but it could be that they now have the coach who can bring them the title. They are running into form with 13 points from the last 15 and Preud’homme seems to have found a system he is happy with and the players he can trust.
Leading goalscorer in classic season: Maxime Lestienne (10).
Top player in the season: Ryan
One to watch: Lestienne
Odd fact: Club Brugge have had 10 coaches in nine seasons.
Anderlecht (29 points)
It’s been chaotic. The management first announced this would be season of transition after the departures of Lucas Biglia, Dieumerci Mbokani, Milan Jovanovic and others. They then decided they were aiming to win the title but subsequently a number of poor performances led to Dutch coach John Van den Brom being sacked and replaced by his assistant Besnik Hasi.
Van den Brom won the title in his first season but paid the price for having no settled team, no obvious preferred method of play and for having a habit of having players out of position. Hasi finds himself in charge of a talented and mainly young squad but he needs to impose some structure quickly. Biglia has not been replaced and this has left a gaping hole in midfield.Aleksander Mitrovic was a €5 million signing at the beginning of the season from Partizan – that’s big money for Belgium. He’s been a bit patchy but seems to be taking life seriously now and he’s got 13 league goals. Anthony Vanden Borre has returned to the club where he started and has nailed down the right back position to the extent that he could be in Wilmots ’23’ for Brazil. Alongside him in defence, Chancel Mbemba has also been one of the few players to be happy with their season.
Another player to catch the eye has been Honduran Andy Najar who has sparkled on occasion before suffering from being switched around by Van den Brom. No one else has been consistent; Dennis Praet and Massimo Bruno have not been able to show their form of last season and Praet in particular seems to have gone backwards rather than progressing in his career.
Leading goalscorer in classic season: Mitrovic (13).
Top player in the season: Mbemba
One to watch: Mitrovic
Odd fact: Of the six teams in the playoffs, Anderlecht have had the least number of yellow cards (33).
Zulte Waregem (27 points)
Working on a small budget, Zulte Waregem could be said to have had a successful season – cup runners-up and a place in the championship playoffs. Coach Francky Dury won’t be happy though as his season has been upset by politics and injuries.
The political problems were due to Thorgan Hazard’s ‘advisor’ John Bico making repeated attempts to move the player to Anderlecht back in January. He convinced the player this would be good for his career and Hazard himself probably saw it as a way of improving his chances of joining his brother on the plane to Brazil. Anderlecht were keen to get Hazard on board and little was heard from Chelsea (the club he’s on loan from) as to how they viewed the situation. In the end, Hazard said he would not be leaving but the on-off transfer left a mark and his form has dipped badly since.Hazard has been Zulte Waregem’s stand-out player in 2013, to the extent that he won the ‘Golden Boot’ back in January. Whether he can get back to his best in the playoffs and get over another disappointment following the cup final defeat is a big question. He will be 21 on Saturday and he’s been in the headlines far too much of late; recently saying he would be returning to Chelsea to discuss his future in the summer.
The team has also suffered recently with injuries to Jens Naessens and Mbaye Leye, while Junior Malanda moved over to Werder Bremen in January. With limited resources, Dury is working miracles but he may not be able to keep getting results for long. Sven Kums came in during the winter transfer window and has proved to be a success in midfield.
Leading goalscorer in classic season: Hazard (9).
Top player in the season: Hazard
One to watch: Hazard.
Odd fact: Zulte Waregem’s captain is Davy De fauw – his surname has no capital letter due to a mistake on the birth certificate.
Lokeren (25 points)
Lokeren won the cup last weekend and thereby qualified for the Europa League. This means they can approach the playoffs in a relaxed frame of mind – hopefully not too relaxed. Peter Maes, rather like Dury used to be, is a Belgian coach much under-rated in his own country.
Maes has been at Lokeren for four seasons and they’ve won the cup twice and qualified for the playoffs on three occasions. The chairman has said he will try to keep Maes at the club but that if the right offer comes along – that is good for Maes’ career – then he will release him. One club that could come calling is Anderlecht – for whom Maes played in the early 90s. If Hasi doesn’t please the management, and I hope he does, then they may decide that Maes deserves his chance.
Remarkably, Lokeren had four players in Sport/Foot magazine’s Top 10 rated players in the regular season: playmaker Hans Vanaken, veteran midfielder Koen Persoons, Danish defender Alexander Scholz and Tunisian striker Hamdi Harbaoui. Harbaoui will be going for the leading scorer title as he’s currently just one goal behind Batshuayi (17ns. 18). He’s been in the Belgian league for a few years and he’s feeling now could be his chance to move to a bigger league. Scholz has been one of the finds of the season and he was the scorer of a rather fortunate cup-winning goal. Vanaken has been a spectacular success at no. 10 and he could well be in Anderlecht’s sights when the new season starts.
Leading goalscorer in classic season: Harbaoui (17).
Top player in the season: Vanaken
One to watch: Vanaken.
Odd fact: Lokeren won their first major prize in 2012 when they won the Belgian Cup.
Racing Genk (23 points)
Genk started the season as possible title contenders but now they look to be the weakest of the six teams. It’s hard to see where it all went wrong but go wrong it did after the winter break. Genk couldn’t win a game for several weeks and Mario Been was sacked in February to be replaced by Emilio Ferrera. Ferrera is a coach who seems to have gone from ‘most promising’ to ‘well-travelled’ without achieving much in-between. A look at his record shows he’s coached around 15 clubs and he was Preud’homme’s assistant at Al-Shabab for a couple of years.
Ferrera needs to install some structure in the team’s play but he doesn’t have much time. ‘Petit’ Pele Mboyo was on the bench last week and Ferrera must get him firing. They will miss Jelle Vossen for at least a couple of weeks – it doesn’t look good.
Leading goalscorer in classic season: Vossen (11).
Top player in the season: Julien Gorius
One to watch: Mboyo
Odd fact: A Genk fan threw a brick through the Chairman’s office window due to frustration with poor results.
Friday 28/3: Club Brugge-Lokeren
Saturday 29/3: Genk-Zulte Waregem.
Monday 30/3: Standard Liege – Anderlecht.