The Jupiler Pro League is back after the winter break. With nine games of the classic season remaining, it would normally mean that Club Brugge – 11 points clear at the top – would be home and hosed.
But this is Belgium and the league gets going in earnest in March. That’s when the top six start to do battle and, crucially, they’ll do so with just half of the points won in the classic 30-game season.
This means that the Blauw-Zwart, if they avoid the odd banana skin in the next few weeks, will start the playoffs five or six points clear of their nearest rival.
Even with this abomination of a system – see here for more details– Club Brugge remain clear favourites. Realistically, only Charleroi and Anderlecht can challenge the leaders. That doesn’t seem likely with Charleroi punching above their weight in second-place and Anderlecht in a state of limbo following events that would not seem out of place in a John Le Carré novel.
But more of that later. A glance at the league table shows that a dozen or so of the JPL’s 16 teams have a chance of making the playoffs. In total, 10 of the 16 have changed coaches since the season started – a remarkable number – and it shows that making the playoffs or avoiding relegation are goals occupying many owners’ minds.
Just outside of the top three, we find newly-promoted Royal Antwerp. With the controversial Luciano D’Onofrio pulling the off-field strings and the enigmatic László Bölöni controlling events on the pitch, Antwerp are exceeding many observers’ expectations, including Bölöni himself who said they would not have a team together until November.
Gent occupy fifth-place with a team entirely revamped from that which won the title, under Hein Vanhaezebrouck, in the 2014-15 season. Vanhaezebrouck’s old number two, Yves Vanderhaeghe, after two seasons of relative failure at Oostende, is now in charge of the Buffalos. Gent have improved under his charge after a disappointing start and they owe their position to having the best defence in the league (18 goals conceded in 21 games).
Currently in sixth spot are, surprisingly, Sint Truiden. The Canaries have always been the club of Roland Duchâtelet’s heart, but he dumped them recently as part of his ‘I don’t understand the world of football’ phase. Sint Truiden are coached by Jonas De Roeck, 38, who took over after two games of the present season. It’s De Roeck’s first job at a professional club and he appears to be enjoying himself immensely.
Sint Truiden’s main opposition could come from Racing Genk. They are one of Belgium’s more ambitious clubs, but things have not gone smoothly in recent years, except in the matter of their healthier bank accounts. Genk are a team of many talents but sadly the focus of several senior players has been on removing coaches whose methods have not been approved of. They’ve had 11 coaches in 10 seasons with Peter Maes and Albert Stuivenberg the latest casualties.
Recently, an ex-player of the club, Philippe Clement, returned to Genk after a short but Impressive spell at Beveren. Prior to that, Clement spent a few years as Michel Preud’homme’s number-two at Club Brugge and in his own words, did everything except put out the cones.
Clement looks like the type of guy who could impose discipline at Genk and get results. If they can hang on to players like Sander Berge (who replaced Wilfred Ndidi) then they could be looking at a place in Europe.
Other outside possibilities for the playoffs are Kortrijk, where Hans Van Der Bruggen (24) is captain and playmaker after being ejected from Gent after playing over 100 games, Mouscron, the perennially in-transition Standard Liege, Beveren and Lokeren. Of those five clubs, three have changed coaches this season.
As for the top three, Club Brugge have been outstanding in the league after a somewhat fortunate disastrous European campaign. With Croat Ivan Leko in charge, they have lost only two games in 21. His first coaching post in the first division was at Sint Truiden and he did enough there to impress the suits at Club Brugge, much to the chagrin of the aforementioned Clement.
The Blauw-Zwart’s outstanding players have been Ruud Vormer, odds-on favourite for Belgium’s Soulier D’Or/ Gouden Schoen, and Hans Vanaken. Both players are having their best-ever seasons, undoubtedly due to Leko’s influence.
Charleroi, in second place, could now be said to be Wallonia’s top club and that would have been an unthinkable concept, five or six years ago. The club has been revolutionised by a combination of CEO Mehdi Bayat and head coach Felice Mazzu. Mehdi is the quieter of the Bayat brothers and is also a powerful voice at the Belgian FA.
Peruvian international Cristian Benavente has been one of Charleroi’s top performers. Benavente is probably unique in that he has both Real Madrid (B) and MK Dons on his cv. In midfield, Benavente has been instrumental in Charleroi’s rise to the top. Also worthy of mention is Iranian international striker Kaveh Rezaei, joint leading scorer in the league with 10 goals.
Anderlecht are back in third spot, 13 points off the pace. The story of their season is worthy of an article of its own but it’s getting late on a Friday night and we must stick to the bare bones.
When players like Sven Kums, Pieter Gerkens and Matz Sels were added to the current squad in the summer of 2017, the Belgian media spoke of a dream team being formed. It was not to be.
Coach René Weiler had won the title in his first season but was sacked in September due to a combination of poor results and fan power. Weiler was replaced by the charismatic Vanhaezebrouck, but he’s struggled to impose his style on the club.
More recently the club has changed hands from the Vanden Stock family – after 50-odd years – to Marc Coucke, billionaire owner of pharma giant Omega Pharma. Unfortunately for Vanhaezebrouck and the fans, Coucke will only take over the club on March 1st, after the closure of the transfer window. Incoming purchases are unlikely to happen in such circumstances and with the whole club in a state of suspended animation, the title seems out of reach.
The bottom four positions are held by Oostende, still nominally owned by Coucke and he intends to hang on to 9% of his holdings, Zulte Waregem, KV Mechelen and, at the bottom of the league, Qatari-owned Eupen. Mechelen have bought eight players in the current window, while Eupen are now coached by Claude Makelele. Despite being owned by Qatar’s Aspire Foundation, the aims of owning Eupen remain – at least to me – a mystery.