After last night’s 1-1 draw between Ghent and Club Brugge, the spotlight today turns on Anderlecht as they welcome their eternal rivals, Standard Liege in the so-called ‘Clasico’. Liege captain Steven Defour recently said he was opposed to the current system of playoffs, as a match like Anderlecht-Standard was great twice per season, but that four encounters were too many. I agree and it looks like the public do too as tonight’s game is not a sell-out. Anderlecht say today’s classic cycle race the “Tour of Flanders” is playing a role and let’s give them the benefit of the doubt. Following the ‘Clasico’, Genk face Lokeren to finish the first round of matches. Yesterday we looked at Ghent, Club Brugge and Lokeren, and here’s a look at the remaining three of the top six – Anderlecht, Genk and Standard Liege.
Standard Liege (6th with 25 points)
Standard start the playoffs eight points behind Anderlecht. Added to that, coach Dominique D’Onofrio says the title is not a priority and he wants to focus on the cup; Standard face a two-leg semi-final with Ghent. Certainly Standard’s form in the league has been disappointing. Perhaps that should be no surprise as they have had to rebuild following a mass exodus last summer. Of the championship-winning side, only Steven Defour, Axel Witsel and keeper Sian Bolat remain. Furthermore, Defour was out injured for two months and he was badly missed, especially by Witsel.
In front of Bolat, the defence has changed on an almost weekly basis. The four most present have been Ghanaian Daniel Opare (20), signed from Real Madrid reserves, Laurent Ciman – recently seen in the Belgian national team, French U21’s Eliaquim Mangala, who’s lived in Belgium since he was five, and the usually under-performing Sébastien Pocognoli.
In midfield, Defour and Witsel are always being linked with a move; now, both have said they are ready for a new challenge. Not that Standard don’t have other useful players in the engine room; Jelle Van Damme may have failed to crack the Premiership bit he’s a great motivator back in Belgium and he always gives 100%; French playmaker Franck Berrier has just returned from injury and is always dangerous from set-pieces; Mehdi Carcela is one of the cleverest players in the league but the controversy surrounding who he would play for – Belgium or Morocco – affected his form. He eventually chose Morocco which did not please Standard’s management.
In attack, the side’s mainstay is Standard’s prodigal son Mémé Tchité. He has a record of scoring once every three games and had a good spell with Racing Santander. Returning this season, he’s scored 8 in 17 games, despite picking up a few injuries. Senegalese international Mbaye Leye – who joined from Ghent – is a useful alternative. Standard Liege is more political than most clubs and Liege strong man – Dominique’s brother Luciano D’Onofrio – is threatening to pull out in the summer. Anything could happen!
Racing Genk (2nd with 32 points)
When the season started, most people thought that of the ‘Big 5’ Genk would finish fifth. The talk in the dressing room was of players leaving, with youngsters Jelle Vossen and Marvin Ogunjimi both refusing to sign new contracts. Move forward six months and Frankie Vercauteren has worked wonders; his team has been in the top two all season, there is competition for places with no talk of players leaving and Genk now had several players in the national squad.
Vercauteren was a bitter man when he left Anderlecht, after being promised a job for life. Nothing would please him more than stopping the champions from regaining their title. At Anderlecht, he had a reputation for being too tough on his players and for not giving youth a chance. He seems to have solved both problems and Genk now have a happy, young squad.
In goal, Genk has one of Europe’s most promising players in Thibaut Courtois. Finding himself in goal by default at the beginning of the season, Courtois has been in the first team ever since. He’s played 30 games, impressed everyone by his composure and was called up for the national squad last week. In front of him are players that are relatively unknown outside of Belgium: South African international Ngconga Anele is the exception at right back; in the centre are Cameroon’s Eric Matoukou, German Torben Joneleit (who replaced Joao Carlos who took the Russian cash) and Czech Daniel Pudil.
The midfield (when playing a strict 4-4-2), with David Hubert and much–travelled Hungarian Daniel Tozér, is workmanlike rather than creative. The more adventurous players are upfront with Vercauteren being able to choose from Belgian internationals Vossen and Ogunjimi (17 and 12 goals respectively), Israeli Elyaniv Barda (11 goals), veteran Thomas Buffel and 20 year-old Kevin De Bruyne who could turn out to be one of the brightest of the young Belgian talents. De Bruyne is just getting back to form after a long illness and his natural position is more central, just behind a main striker. He’s mature and he’ll certainly be competing for a place in the Belgian team next season.
In addition Vercauteren has brought in utility player supreme Anthony Vanden Borre, who he knew from his Anderlecht days, Nigerian striker Kennedy Nwanganga and Brazilian José Nadson – bought as a central defender but who had played in midfield so far. Liverpool’s on loan defender Chris Mavinga has hardly played so far. Overall, Genk have a well-balanced squad and have been playing attractive football – better than Anderlecht’s – all season.
Anderlecht (1st with 33 points)
Anderlecht were firm favourites to regain their title when the season started. That was true until March 10th when Mbark Boussoufa left the club to join Anzji Machatsjakala in the Russian province of Dagestan. In terms of goals and assists, Boussoufa has been responsible for almost 50% of Anderlecht’s output this season, so replacing him – after the transfer window was closed – was never going to be easy.
Regardless of Boussoufa, however, Anderlecht have disappointed. They have scraped results together while managing to perform in the big games. Their results against the other five clubs in the Playoffs show only one defeat: a 5-1 thrashing at Standard Liege. In their only major game since Boussoufa’s departure, Anderlecht were outplayed by Ghent at Parc Astrid before winning 3-2 in extra time.
In goal, Silvio Proto is either loved or hated. He’s consistent in the league but tends to under perform in the national team or in European matches. Roland Juhasz and Ondrej Mazuch are solid at the centre of the defence but there have been problems at full back. Captain Olivier Deschacht has been out injured for a long period and Marcin Wasilewski has not convinced since returning from his career-threatening injury. That has meant Jan Lecjaks stepping in, without success, and occasionally Guillaume Gillet dropping back from midfield.
With Boussoufa in the team, Anderlecht tended to play 4-3-3 with Lucas Biglia (recently appointed captain of the Argentine team in a friendly with Costa Rica), Gillet and Jan Polak in midfield. Now, with Polak having joined Wolfsburg and Gillet often at full back, the midfield positions are up for grabs. Anderlecht could switch to 4-4-2 and give Romelu Lukaku some much need support up front. The midfield two – or three – would then be chosen from Biglia, Senegalese Cheikhou Kouyaté who has disappointed this season, Jonathan Legear, who spends far too long on the treatment table, the talented but fragile Matias Suarez and the promising Czech Lukas Marecek (20). American Sacha Kljestan was signed to the team’s creative force in midfield but has disappointed when selected.
Much has been written about 17 year-old Lukaku. Needless to say that he is promising. After a bright first season, the teenager has failed to shine – although 12 goals this term is not a bad return. Tom De Sutter is also available to either replace Lukaku or play just behind him, as he did against Ghent. In addition, Anderlecht have a bunch of good young players who may come to fruition next season, given the chance.
Although the current system of playoffs may not be many people’s preferred way of choosing the league champions, there’s no doubt that there could be some intriguing matches to come. If Anderlecht fail to replace Boussoufa satisfactorily and lose a couple of early games, then the championship will be wide open. On the other hand, if Anderlecht continue their habit of winning without playing well, the championship will return to Parc Astrid and the playoffs will grind to an uninspiring end. Let’s hope for great games, good football and matches that erase the memories of the chaos that has recently tarnished the reputation of Belgian football.