The playoffs started on Saturday with Zulte Waregem and Lokeren drawing 1-1. On Monday, Anderlecht will play Genk and Club Brugge will face up to standard Liege. The main interest is in the Playoffs 1 (PO1) which brings together the top six (Anderlecht, Zulte Waregem, Racing Genk, Club Brugge, Lokeren and Standard Liege). They will play each other twice in the next six weeks. Controversially, the six clubs start with half of the points that they gained in the “classic” season. This means that the standing (prior to last night’s match at Zulte Waregem) was: Anderlecht 34 points; Zulte Waregem 32; Genk 28; Club Brugge 27; Lokeren 26; Standard Liege 25.
The Playoffs and the abovementioned points scoring system have been heavily criticised for some years. A guide to the Playoffs for newcomers and those who need a refresher course can be found here. The 2010-2011 season was exciting but last season’s playoffs were of poor quality. If anyone is set to challenge Anderlecht, it could well be Club Brugge who have finished the season with a more settled team and with a mixture of strength, creativity and goals from Carlos Bacca.
Overall, the situation now is similar to the 2010-2011 season when Anderlecht won the classic season by two points (reduced to one) over Genk, and Standard finished back in sixth. Then, Anderlecht faded (after selling Mbark Boussoufa) and Genk hung on to win the title in the last match from a resurgent Standard.
This time though, Zulte Waregem are unlikely to have the experience to take the championship as Genk did in 2010-2011 (with Thibaut Courtois and Kevin De Bruyne in their ascendency). Genk may spring a surprise but Club Brugge seem to have the strongest squad. Standard and Lokeren don’t seem to carry a threat. It’s therefore Anderlecht’s championship to lose. This time they’ve avoided selling a player to a Russian club, but Matias Suarez needs to prove his fitness before he can be said to be a real asset.
The winner of the PO1 will go directly into the Champions League, the runners-up will go into the Champions League qualifiers, the third placed team will enter the Europa League and the fourth placed will play-off against the winners of the Playoffs 2 (PO2) with another Europa League spot going to the winner of that play-off. It’s a crazy system that disliked by all and hopefully the championship will return to normal in the not-too-distant future.
Here’s a look at the six teams with their points total going into
the playoffs (PO1) :
Anderlecht (1st with 34 points)
Anderlecht won the JPL ‘classic’ season for the fourth year in succession. It’s John Van den Brom’s first season in charge and he’s had the team playing attractive football – at least until a couple of months ago. After losing to Charleroi, Anderlecht went on a run of 15 matches without defeat; Van den Brom achieved that by remodelling midfield: bringing in Dennis Praet and recalling Sacha Kljestan. Recently though, Praet (18) has looked exhausted and the side has suffered from a rash of suspensions and injuries. Anderlecht now go into the Playoffs just two points ahead of Zulte Waregem.
Silvio Proto has been the most consistent performer, with Cheikhou Kouyate not far behind. As well as Praet, Anderlecht introduced Massimo Bruno (19) and the young winger has exceeded all expectations, contributing five goals and six assists. Dieumerci Mbokani scored 17 goals in the ‘classic’ season’ and is a player of undoubted quality. Whether he has the discipline necessary to succeed at a higher level is a matter of debate.
Anderlecht have a number of players waiting in the wings but question marks hang over all of them. Matias Suarez, Ronald Vargas and Gohi Bi Cyriac have all returned from long-term injury, while Anthony Vanden Borre is Anderlecht’s prodigal son. Whether these four admittedly talented players – plus the two January incoming transfers – can make a difference remains to be seen.
Overall: Anderlecht remain favourites but it’s their title to lose. If they had a strong rival it would be difficult but they should hang on to win the title again.
Zulte Waregem (2nd with 32 points)
Francky Dury’s return to Zulte Waregem has been more successful than anyone expected. In this ‘classic’ season, they gained 63 points, compared to just 30 back in 2011-12, and had the best record away from home (36 points from 15 games). They also had 15 clean sheets.
Dury has masterminded Zulte’s rise in the Jupiler Pro League based on a solid defence, a strong midfield shield and no lack of creativity. The team went 17 games without defeat and Franck Berrier was the headline player with 13 goals and 8 assists. Four relatively unknown players (Karel D’Haene, Davy de Fauw, Sammy Bassut and Jonathan Delaplace) didn’t miss a game and two players who joined in the summer (Junior Malanda and Thorgan Hazard) made significant contributions. Malanda (18) joined Zulte Waregem from Lille and was an effective midfield shield to the extent that Fulham were allegedly ready to pay 6 million euros for him. Thorgan Hazard (19) joined on loan from Chelsea and had three goals and five assists in 24 appearances; he was generally seen as Berrier’s creative lieutenant. Strangely, Zulte’s average crowd was only 7,400, about the same as in 2011-2012.
Overall: Dury has done an excellent job with limited resources and if Zulte do manage to take the title it will rank with Eric Geret’s achievement with Lierse in 1997.
Racing Genk (3rd with 28 points)
Mario Been’s side have had a better season than they did last year (55 points vs. 46 in last year’s classic season) and that’s been achieved in parallel with a sustained run to the last 32 of the Europa League and a place in the Belgian Cup Final. Despite that, they’ve not always looked consistent in the league and have tended to rely on captain Jelle Vossen for goals. Thomas Buffel and Julien Gorius have been other mainstays in the side (29 appearances for each) and Kalidou Koulibaly has been a strong presence in central defence.
Overall: Genk are firm favourites for the Belgian Cup but might lack the desire to push on for the title as well.
Club Brugge (4th with 27 points)
Club Brugge started the season as one of the title favourites with Georges Leekens in charge. They proceeded to sack Leekens after just a few months and finished fourth in the classic season. He was replaced by Juan Carlos Garrido – a coach with an excellent reputation – and despite some strange team selections, he’s built a good-looking side that suffers only from a suspect defence.
Despite being inconsistent, the crowds have increased over last season (up 3% to 24,900 in the classic season). As for the team, Maxime Lestienne, who escaped Mouscron’s bankruptcy, has blossomed with 12 goals from 28 appearances. The biggest goal threat has come from Carlos Bacca – 22 goals in just 25 appearances. The Columbian joined Club Brugge in 2011-12 and looked out of his depth; 12 months have a made a difference and he could be on the move in the summer.
Garrido has built an effective midfield with Ryan Donk playing in front of the back four, Vadis Odjidja getting back in shape after his failed move to Everton and Victor Vasquez adding a dash of creativity (10 assists to-date).
Overall: Club Brugge could be the biggest threat to Anderlecht if they can tighten up their defence.
Lokeren (5th with 26 points)
Lokeren’s coach Peter Maes moved there from KV Mechelen in 2010. Since then he has frequently been linked to a move to one of the ‘Big Five’ clubs without ever getting the nod. Maes has created a workmanlike side without any stars. The best-known player is Ayanda Patosi (20) but the South African midfielder has been ruled out for the rest of the season with a long-term injury.
Lokeren have an impressive record away from home (29 points from 15 games) but their problem has been a lack of goals, not helped by the loss of Benji De Ceulaer: Tunisian striker Hamdi Harbaoui is the leading scorer with eight goals (and six assists). The unsung heroes have been the two Marics (Mijat and Milos), Georgios Galitsios, captain Killian Overmeire and Koen Persoons. Persoons followed Maes to Lokeren and Overmeire is a one-club man, who has been with Lokeren since he was nine.
Overall : Lokeren have done better than expected but will do well to finish in their current position of fifth.
Standard Liege (6th with 25 points)
Standard start the playoffs nine points behind Anderlecht. It looks like it will be another ‘season of transition’ for Les Rouches. Last season they finished fourth in the classic season with 51 points, now they’ve finished sixth with one point fewer. They’ve had 13 clean sheets, with Eiji Kawashima and Laurent Ciman being the pick of the defence.
Dutch coach Ron Jans was sacked early in the season – he was too much of a nice guy – and replaced by ex-Rouche Mircea Rednic. The Romanian has turned the club around – to an extent – but the incoming transfers in January have added little or nothing to the team. Overall, 33 players have been used so far this season.
Crowds have fallen to an average of just under 20,000; that’s a disaster for Standard. Yoni Buyens and Kawashima have not missed a game, while Ciman and captain Jelle Van Damme have only been absent for the odd game. Standard’s problem is a lack of real quality; a midfield duo of Buyens and William Vainqueur offers lots of energy but insufficient creativity.
Standard have some good youngsters: Michy Batshuayi, Imoh Ezekiel, Dino Arslanagic and Ibrahima Cissé and the future might be brighter if they can be kept at the club. Ezekiel looks like a real find but it’s asking a lot for a teenager to carry a club of Standard’s stature.
Overall: Standard will do well to gain a place in Europe next season.