The main Jupiler League Playoffs (PO1) are universally disliked by fans, players and clubs. Even the main protagonist – Anderlecht – had to compromise to get the system accepted. It’s ironic, therefore, that the “arrangement” has generated a fair amount of interest at the back end of the season. Although watching the frequent clashes between top teams can be rather like eating a box of chocolates in one sitting – you keep hoping the next one will be the best – there’s no denying that as a (hopefully) one-off experiment, it’s not all bad.
At the halfway stage, there are three teams in contention: Racing Genk, Anderlecht and Standard Liege. Les Rouches have been the great beneficiaries of the bizarre rule that halved the number of points gained in the “classic” season. Had this not happened, the points would now be Racing Genk 73, Anderlecht 72 and Standard Liege 62. In reality, with the Playoff “rules”, Racing Genk lead Anderlecht by one point and Standard Liege by just three – so it’s all to play for in the next five game weeks. Standard are the in-form team (four wins in five playoff matches) but Genk and Anderlecht have both shown fighting spirit after initial set-backs in the playoffs.
Racing Genk are on top of the table thanks to the work of Franky Vercauteren. Rejected by both Anderlecht and the Belgian FA, Vercauteren’s career seemed to be heading downhill fast. Now the only way is up; arriving at a club where most players wanted to leave, he’s completely turned the situation around. Everyone wants to play for him, all talk of transfers has been banned and he’s achieved the magic formula of having four strikers (Jelle Vossen, Marvin Ogunjimi, Elyaniv Barda and Kennedy Nwamganga) who all score when selected. Just behind them is Kevin De Bruyne in the kind of form that could soon see him challenging Moussa Dembélé, Nacer Chadli and Eden Hazard for a place in the national team. Back from a serious illness, De Bruyne could be the player that takes the title to Genk. Two other players in the spotlight are 18 year-old keeper Thibaut Courtois (said to be in the sights of Manchester United, Newcastle and Spurs) and centre back Eric Matoukou who has really matured since the departure of Joao Carlos to Russia.
Tucked in behind Genk are last year’s champions Anderlecht. The post-Boussoufa period had not been the car crash that some observers – including this one – forecast. But they are not yet out of the woods! Their two recent victories were both achieved in exceptional circumstances: they had to beat Genk (or the word “crisis” would have been written high in the skies above Brussels) and their win at Lokeren was achieved with 10 men – a sure way of engendering a “do or die” spirit. There is a kind of “Fortress” atmosphere at the club – such as the one often seen at Old Trafford – and that could play in Anderlecht’s favour. Two men who could be playing their last games for the club – Luca Biglia and Romelu Lukaku – have hit form; that’s no bad thing for them or Anderlecht. However, the squad is weak and there is more quality in the Genk and Standard Liege dressing rooms.
Standard are in the form of their lives: unbeaten since February. There is real competition for places throughout the team and Belgium’s current right back – Laurent Ciman – is languishing on the bench. Mehdi Carcela has hit form, Aloys Nong is showing why Liege picked him up from KV Mechelen and Axel Witsel has finally proved that he can play without Steven Defour alongside him.
The other three clubs – Club Brugge, Ghent and Lokeren – are basically fighting for 4th place and the right to play the PO2 winners for a Europa League spot. Club Brugge are in the driving seat; they are not a bad side but they pale in comparison to the sides that played at the Jan Breydel stadium in the eighties and nineties. The current side has genuine talent on the flanks in Ivan Perisic and Nabil Dirar but there is a lack of quality in midfield and no central striker worthy of the name.
Ghent could push Club Brugge for fourth spot but Franky Drury’s side looks tired. They haven’t won any of the last seven games (lots of draws) and the club lacks the resources to challenge the top four. Lokeren have achieved more than they could have hoped by simply making it to the top six. Coach Peter Maes is another young Belgian who could soon be snapped up by one of the top clubs. His team has not been humiliated and in Benjamin Mokulu – from the same area of Brussels as Vincent Kompany – they have one for the future.
The games next weekend should deliver victories for the top three, but on May 6th, Anderlecht visit Genk’s Cristal Arena for what could be a decisive fixture. Standard Liege also have to visit Genk and that could mean it’s Franky Vercauteren who has the biggest smile at the end of the season.
Current points: Genk 41, Anderlecht 40, Standard 38, Club Brugge 33, Ghent 32, Lokeren 27.
Game Week 6: Standard-Ghent; Anderlecht-Club Brugge; Lokeren-Genk.
Game Week 7: Genk-Anderlecht; Standard-Club Brugge; Ghent-Lokeren.
Game Week 8: Club Brugge-Genk; Anderlecht-Ghent; Lokeren-Standard.
Game Week 9: Standard-Anderlecht; Ghent-Genk; Lokeren-Club Brugge.
Game Week 10: Genk-Standard; Anderlecht-Lokeren; Club Brugge-Ghent.
 Although this is the second time that the Playoffs have taken place in this format, the first series was played without Standard Liege and Racing Genk.