The Jupiler Pro League playoff system has been the subject of much criticism in the past decade, especially the decision to halve points gained in the Classic Season before the Playoffs begin. This season though, with the Playoffs starting in mid-March, the infamous format promises to deliver more tension than usual. Club Brugge might be 11 or so points ahead of the pack but with that lead being cut in half before the real competition starts, no chickens should be counted just yet.
Further back, the battle for which six teams will be in those Playoffs, with European competition places up for grabs, is as close as could be. From Royal Antwerp in fifth place to Sint Truiden back in tenth, only four points divide six teams: those two plus Racing Genk, Beveren, Kortrijk and Standard Liège. That race will certainly go to the wire.
Usually, most bets would be on Anderlecht as being the team with the best chance of catching the leaders. However, Hein Vanhaezebrouck’s men – and the whole club – are in such a state of chaos that Charleroi – in second spot – might even have the edge. Certainly, their coach Felice Mazzu’s capability should not be discounted.
Club Brugge were having almost a perfect season in the league until they dropped five points in their last two league games, with a 4-1 Cup defeat to Standard wedged in between those matches. It might be a blip, but nine goals conceded in three games must have Ivan Leko scratching his head.
The Blauw-Zwart’s main man has been Dutch midfielder Ruud Vormer with nine goals and even more assists. He’s had a great season and Vormer starts favourite for the ‘Golden Boot’ (Player of the Year 2017) next week. However, it’s a far cry from the days when the award when to players with the quality of Enzo Scifo and Michel Preud’homme, and later Axel Witsel and Vincent Kompany.
Anderlecht are being sold to Oostende’s Marc Coucke, but the deal won’t go through until March. That meant little activity in the last transfer window, but, unfortunately for Vanhaezebrouck, it was possible to sell one of their most creative outlets – Soufiane Hanni – to Spartak Moscow. This is reminiscent of the sale of Mbark Boussoufa to Anzhi in 2011, before the playoffs, but then they were leading the table. There’s a total lack of confidence at the Constant Vanden Stock stadium and the only positive step is Vanhaezebrouck’s willingness to blood youngsters.
Charleroi are realistically the only other team with a chance to take the title, but it will take a mighty effort from a club with a low budget – around 13 million euros – and a small squad. Their most consistent player has been Peruvian international Christian Benavente, once of Real Madrid ‘B’ and MK Dons. That’s quite a cv.
Further down, Gent should comfortably qualify for the playoffs. The Buffalos are in fourth place and have the quality to cement their place. The team has changed dramatically since Vanhaezebrouck was in charge of the championship-winning team. Samuel Gigot has proved a good signing and recently Ukrainian Roman Yaremchuk has been getting the goals.
The other two places are up for grabs. Standard Liege have found some belief and are running into form at the right time. Racing Genk are also beginning to pick up the points, with a recent away win at Mouscron particularly useful. Those two should be the favourites for the playoffs but Antwerp – and their fans – cannot be discounted.
Points after 25 games
Club Brugge 58, Charleroi 47, Anderlecht 46, Gent 40, Royal Antwerp 37, Racing Genk 34, Beveren, Kortrijk and Standard – all 33.
(The regular season consists of 30 games; then the top six go into the playoffs with the points gained halved.)