KAA Gent beats KV Kortrijk as Playoff I kicks off

Football supporters tend to be a conservative bunch when their clubs are concerned. When the current playoff system was introduced in the 2009-2010 season , it polarized public opinion. Supporters hated it at first and if your club gets stuck in Playoff II, playing for crumbs, then you can fully understand this sentiment.

It has been explained in depth in some very thorough articles on this website but let’s just give a quick primer if you – the reader – is new to the sometimes strange and bizarre world of Belgian football. In 2009 the number of teams in the top league was reduced to 16 teams and after a regular competition in which each team plays the other teams twice, playoffs are played. The points total is halved and rounded upward.

The first six teams will battle for the championship title and two Champion’s League tickets. Playoff I is generally an exciting affair as any gaps that a team has on the other team is closed down by halving the points. You also have the top teams playing each other twice again. You will have four Anderlecht-Club Brugge games in a season instead of the usual two matchups. You can see why top clubs and their ticket sellers would be excited about that.

The next eight teams will play Playoff II and are divided into two separate groups. The winners of both groups play each other for the right to play the team that ends fourth in Playoff I. The winner of this confrontation will get a Europa League ticket.

Everyone still on board ? Good.

Finally there’s Playoff III. In Playoff III the two worst teams of the regular season get to battle out directly who is relegated to the second division. The winner of Playoff III has to participate in another Playoff tournament with three teams from the second division in which only the winner of this mini-competition can go play in the top tier level of Belgian football.

Playoff I has kicked off tonight with AA Gent hosting KV Kortrijk in the magnificent Ghelamco Arena. Let’s see what the points totals were before kick-off:

1. Club Brugge            31 pts
2. AA Gent                   29 pts
3. RSC Anderlecht     29 pts
4. Standard                 27 pts
5. Kortrijk                    26 pts
6.Charleroi                  25 pts

There’s only a 6 point gap between Club Brugge and Charleroi. Kortrijk could rise to second position with a win tonight and Gent would go first and put the pressure immediately on Club Brugge before their game against Standard tomorrow. What we did not need tonight in terms of excitement is a draw.

There’s an interesting parallel between this season and the 2009-2010 season, when this playoff system was first introduced.

Neither Gent nor Kortrijk have been heavy hitters in the Belgian top flight. Both of the teams’ highest finishes in their history were from the 2009-2010 season when they were both in the playoffs and started them respectively in third and fourth place. Gent became second in the league that year. Last time they met in the playoffs was in 2012. Gent – then better known as “La Gantoise” was a semi-succesful  team in the fifties with some finishes in second and third place. They never managed to win the league in their history and seemed destined to end up somewhere mid-table until the end of time, but with the advent of a new coach and a new stadium, they are ambitious and are knocking at the door of the traditional big teams like Anderlecht, Brugge and Standard.

KV Kortrijk then used to be the mere definition of a mid-table team. So what has changed ?  The answer is simple : the coach. Yves Vanderhaeghe managed to build a great team with lesser known players, recruited from lower leagues or rejects from top teams. Vanderhaeghe is as a coach as he was as a player : no-nonsense and no excuses. You either work hard and lay down your head for your team, or you’re simply not making the team sheet.

KAA Gent coach Hein Vanhaezebrouck knows the opposition well : he coached them from 2006 to 2009 and then again from 2010 to 2014. Vanhaezebrouck has a similar style to Vanderhaeghe and will go down in history as the coach who hired striker Istvan Backx based on a Google search. Vanhaezebrouck needed a left-wing attacker and that’s exactly what he typed in the google search window. Welcome to Belgian football.

So tonight AA Gent and Kortrijk stood face to face. AA Gent has an interesting attacking unit with the quicksilvery Moses Simon in a strange combination with Laurent Depoître who is basically the human version of an M1-Abrams assault tank.  This makes for a very dangerous frontline with quite a bit of firepower. Behind them they have a few players like Brecht Dejaegere and Thomas Foket who both know how to score a goal.

The first few minutes into the first half it was clear that AA Gent had come to try to put the game away as quickly as possible. They were a bit too enthusiastic in their approach missing that vital final pass. KV Kortrijk was overwhelmed at times and they resorted to fouling opponents in order to keep them in check. The game soon threatened to descend in of those affairs where you’re watching lots of players clutching some body part while the referee stands around arguing and penning notes on his little scratchpad.  Kortrijk’s main central defending unit managed to get their names into it quite quickly, and they were lucky there weren’t any more bookings. Kortrijk was able to break a few times however and looked very dangerous with Santini heading over and shooting just wide.

But it was AA Gent who managed to score first. In the 33rd minute Laurent Depoître back-headed a long pass through to Milicevic who rifled the ball in the back of the net.

Immediately things changed : Kortrijk switched to a plan B and started putting pressure on the Gent defense. Gent goalkeeper Selz had to rescue his team a few times.

In the second half Kortrijk escaped the 2-0 several times, notably when goalkeeper Henkinet kept Gershon from heading in.  The inevitable second goal came from Moses Simon, whose playing style is very reminiscent of Eden Hazard. He cut onto his right foot and unleashed a shot that found the back of the net via a Kortrijk defender. In the process he managed to pull a muscle and he had to be carried off the pitch.

At the end of the day Kortrijk came up short against an ambitious AA Gent that was superior in all positions. Their players get to go to sleep tonight knowing they’re now top of the league for a few hours. It’s very unlikely they can win it, but they’re at least going to give it a shot.


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