Belgium: The best title race in Europe
As the above table shows, you can’t put a cigarette paper between the top five sides in Belgium with just four games to go. Our northern neighbours’ hopes of a title race, which would go right to the wire, have collapsed as Ajax have pulled away and they will win a third successive title should they beat Willem II next week. That just leaves Belgium then with an incredible five-way battle for the championship with no clear favourite yet to emerge. In the midst of an ongoing review by Ernst and Young into the league structure, Play-Off 1 is delivering its most exciting climax in the fourth season since its inception.
What should be a dream scenario for any follower of Belgian football nevertheless tinged with the realisation that it’s artificial. Without even having recourse to the table below, it is abundantly clear that Anderlecht and Zulte Waregem have been the best two sides in the country by a fair distance. Halving the points after the 30-game regular season has undoubtedly played right into the hands of Club Brugge, Racing Genk and most of all Standard Liège. Standard were implacably opposed to the play-offs and their continuation is sometimes given as one reason why season ticket numbers are down though this is true of most, if not all top flight teams.
|Regular season + PO1|
Before the turn of the year, Anderlecht looked unstoppable. They won eleven straight league games (to put that into context, the last time they approached such form was in 02-03 and 03-04 when they won ten on the bounce) between the end of October and January but while they beat Lokeren in their first game after the winter break, the mid-season hiatus came at a most inopportune time for les Mauve et Blanc. Lucas Biglia’s “migraine”, Dieumerci Mbokani’s trip to the Africa Cup of Nations and the rigours of a full season catching up with breakthrough stars Massimo Bruno and particularly Dennis Praet have all contributed to a 2013 malaise, which the champions seem unable to emerge from.
They have taken five points from a possible eighteen in the play-offs and the hope that the returning cast of Mbokani, Matias Suarez, Cyriac and Vanden Borre would reignite their stuttering season has all but faded. The criticism levelled towards Milan Jovanovic is only matched by the size of his salary yet he has been involved in more goals than any other player in Belgium this season – ample evidence of his mercurial qualities. The man I long believed to be their trump card – John van den Brom – has clearly panicked as his side’s lead has vanished and now disappeared. Eleven missed penalties this season in all competitions may prove a source of comedy for rival fans but while Mbokani’s miss in stoppage time yesterday may prove costlier than the other ten combined, it’s a symptom that masks deeper problems at the club. Van den Brom has strayed too far from a winning formula in recent weeks and has been terrible at managing what remains a bloated squad. He remains a fine young coach but it’s imperative that he meets the stiffest challenge of his career to date.
Zulte Waregem continue to occupy top spot despite their recent defeat after Standard did the double over them with a 1-0 win at the weekend. In spite of that recent result, they are yet to fall away and choke. The question nevertheless persists of how they will cope with the pressure of the run in. In my view, the unique nature of this title race actually helps to lessen the strain on Essevee than if it was a straight shoot-out with just one of the major sides. They came unstuck against Standard’s organised defence but fortunately, les Rouches are very much the exception when it comes to Essevee’s rivals though the lack of a threatening alternative to Mbaye Leye (who himself is hardly the most ruthless or consistent) was lacking on Sunday – Karel D’Haene is not the man you want your best chances falling to. Their energetic midfield with Malanda, Delaplace, Thorgan Hazard, Conte and Berrier will stand them in good stead as will a settled back four well marshalled by Davy De fauw, who some are even heralding as a solution to Belgium’s problems at rightback.
Not even a third title in six seasons for Standard Liège will have the fans worshipping at the altar of this play-off system or chairman Roland Duchâtelet for that matter but Mircea Rednic was already a popular figure when he returned to the club as head coach. Standard have taken the most points in PO1 (13) and the momentum is well and truly behind them, with a good luck message from Steven Defour to boot. They are the freshest side in PO1 having not been through the rigours of European competition or the latter stages of the cup and given their fairly direct and high tempo style of play, that’s been crucial to their success. There are question marks over their depth in attack but the front two of Ezekiel and Batshuayi cause problems with their movement, pace and a generally fearless approach while William Vainqueur and Paul-José Mpoku are arguably the two form players in Belgium. Pipped to the post two years ago by Genk, the club has gone through so many changes in the intervening period but they will quietly fancy their chances.
The recent defeat of Anderlecht was a major psychological boost for Club Brugge, who finally managed to overcome their biggest rivals after the previous two near-misses. However, the ecstasy of a dramatic victory has been offset against the fact they are struggling to name a recognisable back four for this weekend’s game with Lokeren. At the other end of the pitch, Maxime Lestienne has been in sensational form this season and is playing with more confidence and decisiveness, which has taken the ex-Mouscron midfielder’s game to new heights. Both he and Refaelov dovetail superbly and both are comfortable right across the width of the field. The absence of Vadis was not as keenly felt as had been feared with Jesper Jørgensen now beginning to find the form, which made him so integral at KAA Gent last term and Eidur Gudjohnsen is not a bad player to be able to bring on, either in place of or in support of leading scorer Carlos Bacca, who for all his goals, could still be more clinical.
And finally we come to Racing Genk. For so long, they fought on three fronts and they are overwhelming favourites to lift the Belgian Cup on 9 May when they take on Cercle. However, the side who remained unbeaten for longer than anyone at the start of the season has only taken one point from their last nine. For a squad boasting the likes of Vossen, Plet, De Ceulaer, Barda, Ojo, Buffel and Monrose, their recent failure in front of goal is little short of inexcusable. Khaleem Hyland has lost the oomph of a few weeks back and Genk are often too static in the final third and thus easier to defend against than might otherwise be the case. Monrose is a player who promised much when he arrived from Kortrijk but often flatters to deceive. On the other hand, Köteles László, who it’s fair to say is a less reliable goalkeeper than Kawashima or Proto, had perhaps his best game in a Genk shirt. Defensive solidity is paramount for Mario Been’s side given their problems at the other end.
All bets are off and most people’s predictions have gone out the window a long time ago. Whatever the outcome, I hope as a fan and for the sake of the integrity of the competition, that it all comes down to the final day when Anderlecht host Zulte Waregem in three weeks. However we arrived at this point, Belgium boasts the best title race in Europe.