It’s just over halfway through the season proper in the Jupiler Pro League but as the ‘end-of-season playoffs’ count for 40% of points overall (points gained by the end of the classic season are divided by two), we’re just getting started in Belgium. No one likes the current system and this is probably the last time it will be used.Still, both on and off the pitch, this season has not been short of interest. Six coaches – of the 16 – have been sacked, including three of the big five: Club Brugge, Gent and Standard Liege; four outsiders -Kortrijk, Leuven, Lokeren and Zulte Waregem- have made impressive starts to the season and taken some big scalps.
After a dodgy start, champions Anderlecht have grown in strength – apart from a reminder in Europe that they are not quite the finished article – and in terms of quality, they seem to have no rivals. The only danger would seem to be the January transfer window. As for who will come second, it looks like Racing Genk at the moment but it’s really wide open, especially with the ‘design’ of the playoffs. So here’s a whistle-stop tour of the 16 Jupiler Pro League teams at more-or-less the halfway stage.
Anderlecht have scored 20 goals in winning their last five league games. New coach John Van den Brom has delivered the club’s promise to play attacking football. He recently re-introduced American midfielder Sacha Kljestan – who never stops running – and 18 year-old Dennis Praet, a genuine playmaker, and the results have been remarkable. The squad looks far too good for the Jupiler Pro League but there may be problems if Lucas Biglia, Dieumerci Mbokani and Cheikhou Kouyaté decide to jump ship in January. Praet and Massimo Bruno have freshened up the team while Milan Jovanovic has looked good in the league but less so in Europe; he might just be unloaded sooner rather than later. That would save money and allow Van den Brom to invest further in youth.
Just behind the leaders are Zulte Waregem and Lokeren. The former are the surprise package of the championship; French playmaker Franck Berrier has been the mastermind, with 10 goals and several assists after being pushed further forward. He’s been ably assisted by a midfield containing Thorgan Hazard, Jonathan Delaplace and 18 year-old Junior Malanda. The last-named is Belgian and was signed from Lille in the summer after spending a couple of years at Anderlecht. Coach Francky Dury is back at the club where he made his name and has got the team well-organised and able to defend.
Lokeren were fancied for a place in the top six, i.e. the playoffs, and at the moment they can’t stop winning. With seven victories in succession, the stand-out performer is coach Peter Maes. He’s getting the best out of his squad and they don’t seem to be missing striker Benjamin De Ceulaer, who moved to Genk to replace Premier League-bound Christian Benteke. They have top class youngsters in Laurens De Bock, now in the Belgian national squad, and South African Ayanda Patosi who is looking really classy in midfield. Lokeren also field Ivory Coast keeper Copa Barry Boubacar.
Mario Been – one of five Dutch coaches in the league – has put together an attractive side at Racing Genk; he’s managed to compensate for the loss of Benteke and Kevin De Bruyne. Captain Jelle Vossen is playing better than ever and is the leading ‘Belgian’ scorer in the league, while ex-KV Mechelen’s Julien Gorius is pulling the strings in midfield. Genk had a purple patch in October but have not been so sharp recently, perhaps due to their efforts in the Europa League.
In fifth place are Club Brugge; they’re having a season in transition and that is not what was planned back in August. The Blauw-Zwart started the campaign as joint favourites with Anderlecht but after a good start it all went horribly wrong. Since they last won the title in 2005, the club has shipped in 71 players. Most of them have left, as did new coach Georges Leekens in October. The players tend to think highly of themselves and were primarily responsible for getting rid of Leekens, although as usual he didn’t help himself too much; except to an extra couple of million euros. A new coach, Juan Carlos Garrido, who had a lot of success at Villarreal, has arrived and he could be just the man to sort out the dressing room. It won’t be easy though and some players could soon be on their way out. On the positive aside, Colombian striker Carlos Bacca has hit 13 goals in 15 games.
The final playoffs spot is currently occupied by Kortrijk. They have a coach in Hein Vanhaezebrouck, who like Zulte Waregem’s Dury, has returned to a club where he made his name after failing at a bigger club – in this case Racing Genk. Vanhaezebrouck has produced a team that, along with Anderlecht, has the best defensive record in the league. Watch out for South African keeper Darren Keet, Bosnian centre back Ervin Zukanovic and young Brecht Dejaegere.
Standard Liege were a disaster in the first half of the season and Ron Jans, a nice guy, paid dearly. The players didn’t help him and the senior ones only really showed support after he’d gone. Jans had not been given the players a club like Standard deserved and the fans – fiercely supportive – have fond memories of Axel Witsel, Steven Defour and Marouane Fellaini. New coach Mircea Rednic has come in and his initial results – with a switch to 4-4-2 – look promising; Nigerian teenager Imoh Ezekiel is hitting the net regularly – seven goals in 13 games. Rednic will probably get more out of the squad than Jans but this will be another season of transition for Les Rouches.
Leuven had a great run around October and reached the top six but have slipped a little recently. They’re strong at home, never give up, and have scored more goals than any club except Anderlecht and Club Brugge. In Gambian forward Ibou Savaneh, they have the league’s joint leading scorer, also with 13. He couldn’t stop scoring during Leuven’s excellent run of victories and they also have Icelandic midfielder Stefan Gislason pulling the strings to good effect.
Mons are in the top half of the table and despite media enthusiasm, that’s about all Enzo Scifo could hope for. Jeremy Perbet seems to have got over his botched plan to move to Serie A and has started scoring the odd goal but this is a squad that will be happy with mid-table.
Back in tenth spot, Gent are a club in real trouble. Last season they were consistent largely due to a midfield trio of Bernd Thijs, Jesper Jorgensen and Tim Smolders. Only Thijs is left at the club and his age is beginning to show. The players brought in have not delivered and Trond Sollied’s sacking looked like another case of player power. Bob Peeters has returned to the club, after being sent packing by Cercle Brugge, but it’s not been a happy return. Peeters was in charge of Gent’s youth team a few years ago and the club does have good youngsters but time is fast running out. This ambitious club may seek new blood in January and Peeters himself may not be totally secure.
KV Mechelen have been decimated by injuries and are now only five points ahead of relegation trouble. They should improve once the sick room empties.
Antwerp’s only representatives in the first division, Beerschot, are a club that’s hard to fathom. There are severe money problems, their away from has been woeful for years but they are strong at home. They’ve also been hit by injuries and have especially missed playmaker Hernan Losada, once one of the highest-paid players on Anderlecht’s books. Beerschot recently sacked a player – Elimane Coulibaly – for striking the aforementioned Losada in the car park after a game that Beerschot lost. Times are hard.
Lierse have recently sacked their coach Chris Janssens and replaced him by a team of three: a technical director – Egyptian Hany Ramzy – and two coaches. Nothing is going right though and Ramzy has demanded new signings. They are owned by Egyptian Maged Samy and have reportedly signed up to be Sunderland’s feeder club – it’s not obvious why.
Sporting Charleroi are a legendary outfit – one of only three from Wallonia in the first division. The fans deserve more but they’ve suffered from a decade of Abbas Bayat’s misrule. There are currently no less than 18 different nationalities in the squad, mostly bought on the cheap. The club now has a new owner and a young coach, 32 year-old Yannick Ferrera, but this will be a long and winding road.
In the bottom two, Waasland-Beveren is the club that rose from the ashes of Beveren. The coach that won promotion, Dirk Geeraerd, has been sacked and replaced by ex-Anderlecht centre back Glen De Boeck. The squad lacks quality but there was an immediate ‘new coach’ effect when ‘Beveren’ won at KV Mechelen recently. Midfielder Jonathan Rowell, once of Hartlepool United, is on the books; he’s the only English player currently in the Jupiler Pro League.
Bottom of the league are Cercle Brugge, also with a new coach in Foeke Booy, who left his job as FC Utrecht’s Technical Director. Cercle looked good last season under Bob Peeters and were thought to be a reasonable bet to reach the top six in this campaign. That now looks impossible as key players have left the club and Peeters seemed to lose his magic. They have now signed Eidur Gudjohnsen, who has been scoring freely, and they might just have enough quality to climb out of the relegation zone.
Placings after 18 games:
1. Anderlecht 37 points; 2. Zulte Waregem and Lokeren, 33 pts; 4. Racing Genk 29 pts; 5. Club Brugge and Kortrijk 28 pts; 7. Standard Liege 26 pts; 8. Leuven 25 pts; 9. Mons 24 pts; 10. Gent 20 pts; 11. KV Mechelen 19 pts; 12. Beerschot 17 pts; 13. Lierse 16 pts; 14. Charleroi 15 pts; 15. Waasland-Beveren 14 pts; 16 Cercle Brugge 11 pts.