As someone once said, it’s been a funny old season. This year’s Jupiler League has had more twists and turns than an Agatha Christie novel, books beloved by many Belgians. When the “classic” season finished, Anderlecht were on top (65 points), one point ahead of Racing Genk and 16 points ahead of Standard Liège.
Then the playoffs kicked in. Ironically, Anderlecht – supported by Genk, Ghent and Club Brugge – were responsible for having the rules pushed through and prolonged for three more years. The so-called ‘G4’ hoped for more excitement, bigger gates and – primarily – more money when TV rights were sold. Standard Liege stood aloof from all this and threatened to do their own (Walloon) thing.
This year, however, the playoffs were to carry a sting in the tail. Very few people outside of Belgium, and only a handful inside the country, fully understand the playoff regulations. In brief, the top six enter the ‘senior’ playoffs, and play each other twice in a mini-league; so far so good, but in addition the clubs start with just half of the points already accumulated. Standard Liege scraped into the top six on the last day of the ‘classic’ season and immediately cut the gap with Anderlecht to eight points.
Anderlecht carelessly sold Mbark Boussoufa (responsible for half of Anderlecht’s goals in the ‘classic’ season) and the rest, as they say, is history. In the playoffs to-date, Standard Liege have taken 25 points from nine games compared to Genk’s 18 and Bousouffa-less Anderlecht’s 11. Doing the maths shows that Standard and Genk now have 50 points and Anderlecht just 44; how have the mighty fallen.
So tonight, Standard go to Genk having to win. That’s’ because those who have been following carefully will understand that Standard Liege were given half a point when their 49 points were halved, so in fact they now have 49.5 points as opposed to Genk’s genuine 50. Hence a draw tonight will give Franky Vercauteren’s men the title.
Turning to the football, the teams are well matched. Genk have been consistent all season and in Thibaut Courtois, Kevin de Bruyne and Jelle Vossen, they have three young players of genuine quality. 18 year-old Courtois is the top keeper in the Jupiler League by far and De Bruyne (19) has a bright future. The midfielder is the Jupiler League player with the most potential; he’s been linked to several Premiership clubs and it would be no surprise to see him move in the summer. Genk play a fairly rigid 4-4-2 (with De Bruyne on then left) and they keep coming forward; with their home crowd behind them they will be hard to beat.
Genk are a young side, but then so are Standard Liège. At the turn of the year, coach Dominique D’Onofrio would have been hard pushed, with the possible exception of Managing Director Luciano D’Onofrio, to find anyone who would have voted to keep him in his job. Last weekend, DD was carried shoulder-high around the pitch by the Standard players and acclaimed by the whole crowd – incredible! It’s not obvious what DD brings to the team but everyone (now) likes him and he does seem to be a genuine guy who is doing his best. He is ably assisted by Sergio Conceicao and Sira Dembélé.
The remarkable thing about Standard’s team is that it’s a relatively new one. Of the 2009 championship-winning side, only Steven Defour and Axel Witsel remain. The majority of the rest have only been at the club this season with Abdou Camara, Jelle Van Damme and Kanu arriving in the winter break. The side gelled just in time for the playoffs and they are unbeaten, with playoff victories running alongside a journey to next weekend’s cup final. The strength of the team is it’s midfield with Defour, Witsel, Mehdi Carcela, Van Damme and Camara looking like a combination that would not be out of place in a more reputable league. That’s not to decry Mémé Tchite in attack, Sian Bolat in goals and a back four looking much stronger following the arrival of Brazilian Kanu.
Tonight’s match should be a high-scoring affair with both sides going all out to win. It would be no surprise if it finished, say, 3-3. That would be fitting as Racing Genk would be champions, as the most consistent side over 12 months, Standard Liege would be able to plan the Champions League as well as the Cup Final next weekend and the league would be decided by half a point. And that would be an appropriate end to a remarkable season.