The Jupiler Pro League (JPL) starts tonight and Club Brugge lead the chasing pack by two points. That’s a telling comment on the quality of the league as the Blauw-Zwarts were one of only two clubs that lost all their games at the group stage of this season’s Champions’ League.
The JPL has been a feeder league for some years and it knows its place. On the positive side, it’s becoming a more competitive league and the trend is continuing this season. The clubs sitting just behind the ‘Big Two’ – Club Brugge and Anderlecht – are not those you would expect. The next four (in the playoff qualifying places) are Zulte Waregem, Oostende, KV Mechelen and Charleroi.
There’s been little joy so far for the other three of the ‘Big Five’ – Standard Liege, Gent and Racing Genk, who are all off the pace.
The start of the season saw Zulte Waregem playing out of their skins and at the halfway stage of the classic season, the Essevee were five points clear of Oostende in second place. It didn’t last and a poor run of games – five without a win – has pegged them back in to third place.
The leaders, Club Brugge, have done enough to top the table but no more. Their game is based on power with Dutch box-to-box midfielder Ruud Vormer being the man that typifies the team. Up front, Jelle Vossen, who didn’t make the grade in the Championship, has weighed in with 12 goals and six assists.
Anderlecht, who have not won the title since 2013-14, have rarely looked the part and are close to being a one-man-team with their dependency on Polish striker Lukasz Teodorczyk: 16 goals in 21 games. Swiss coach René Weiler has yet to prove he’s the solution to Anderlecht’s problems and the latest throw of the dice is the arrival of Standard’s ex- captain Adrien Trebel.
Zulte Waregem’s early season success was mainly due to a settled back four and two players who bossed midfield: Dane Lukas Lerager and Soualiho Meïté, on loan from Lille. They need to start winning soon.
Oostende are improving season by season, due to the financial support of businessman Marc Coucke. Unfortunately, they’ll be missing several players at the Africa Cup of Nations and that could damage their prospects. Zimbabwe’s Knowledge Musona has been their main man with eight goals and four assists.
KV Mechelen are a surprise entrant in the current top six. They’ve never made the PO1 playoffs and it will be tough for Yannick Ferrera’s men to hang on in the remainder of the season. Another surprise is the form of Mats Rits. Once hailed as the ‘Next Big Thing’, Rits made his debut for Germinal Beerschot at 16 and joined Ajax at 18. The recent rumour is that he could soon be on the move to Standard.
Charleroi are currently sixth and Felice Mazzù will be concerned about his team’s inability to score goals. Hamdi Harbaoui has arrived from Anderlecht – saying the training is harder at Charleroi – and it might help in that regard. Charleroi have a tough programme after the winter break and they will need to perform to stay in the top six, synonymous with making the playoffs.
Gent – two points from 15 before the winter break – have brought in five new players in the current transfer Birger Verstraete from Kortrijk. They have enough quality in the squad to make the playoffs.
Racing Genk have also disappointed and have lost Wilfrid Ndidi to Leicester City, in return for an amount that is not far below the club’s annual budget – €23 million. That’s good money. Genk have a game in hand on most of the others, an ‘unknown’ coach in Albert Stuivenberg and they have also welcomed back Siebe Schrijvers who could make an impact.
It’s hard to know what to say about Standard. It looks like another season of transition and the fans will probably accept that. They will be happy that Ishak Belfodil will see out the season and they will want Orlando Sa to keep scoring. Romanian youngster Razvan Marin has arrived and he will need to settle quickly.
Club Brugge, Anderlecht, Zulte Waregem and Oostende look certain to make the playoffs, along with Gent. The other position should see a fight that could go to the last day of the classic season – March 12 – between Racing Genk, Standard and Charleroi. A little spice will be added to that contest within a contest as the league have not yet decided how to resolve the issue of the abandoned match between Charleroi and Standard, where the visitors – Standard – were leading 3-1 when the referee brought an end to the proceedings due to crowd trouble.
That match might be replayed, the result might stand or no points awarded to either side. No decision until early February which is absolutely crazy. That one will run and run. So my final six for the playoffs are Club Brugge, Anderlecht, Oostende, Zulte Waregem, Gent and Racing Genk.
Further down the league, Kortrijk striker Idriss Saadi – on loan from Cardiff City is banging in the goals – Roland Duchatelet’s favourite club Sint Truiden is stacking its shelves with promising young Belgians while Eupen (from the German-speaking community of Belgium but owned by the Qatar Football Association) have reached the Cup semi-finals and are growing in confidence.