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.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.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)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.