JPL Season Preview: The chasing pack
Over the past couple of days I have attempted to write in some detail about the top five clubs, whom I expect to fight it out for the European places and of course the title. Today, I will briefly run through the rest of the runners and riders, attempting to sketch the wider Pro League landscape in an attempt to point out who will surprise, who may fall back and who could find themselves falling through the trap door next spring. Below is an overview of the clubs who are realistically aiming to finish at least in the top half and even grab the all-important final spot in Play Off1 (in the absence of any major shocks):
For my money, the favourites for PO1. They built up a real head of steam in the second half of the regular season, showing form worthy of Club Brugge or Anderlecht before easing off. They could be excused for that though as they won the first trophy in their history, the Belgian Cup after deservedly beating Kortrijk in the final. With a tough stance against the vultures that are the top clubs, they have so far kept their squad together and notably added Milos Maric. Not only is Maes a coach who deserves a bigger job sooner or later, he has a balanced team with quality throughout, as they demonstrated in last week’s narrow Supercup defeat. Jérémy Taravel will be key in defence, as proven by his unprofessional absence last week, allowing Dieumerci Mbokani to score. Hamdi Harbaoui has come on so much that a quality striker in the shape of Djiby Fall is on the bench. Benji De Ceulaer will also be looking to continue his impressive form in Belgium.
Last season: 8th place (4th in PO2 Group B), Belgian Cup winners
Head coach: Peter Maes
Star player: Jérémy Taravel
Title odds: 150/1
Involved in one of the more high-profile internal transfers of the close season, KV Mechelen will be eager to replace Julien Gorius, who was their stand-out player of recent seasons. Naturalised Belgian coach Harm van Veldhoven arrives from Roda JC in his native Netherlands having performed admirably with the Limburg-based club. A word of caution though – last season only the bottom three shipped more than Roda’s 70 goals and they only drew twice. Mads Junker looks to be a real coup for Malinwa, having scored 47 goals in the last three Eredivisie seasons – the Dane is versatile as he proved last season with 15 assists, playing second fiddle in terms of scoring to Sanrahib Malki. Junker’s compatriot Niklas Pedersen was at Euro 2012 and ignored Morten Olsen’s advice to join, while Boris Pandza remains a key figure at the back.
Last season: 9th place (4th in PO2 Group A)
Head coach: Harm van Veldhoven
Star player: Mads Junker
Title odds: 500/1
The second side from Brugge missed out on a deserved PO1 spot on the final day of the regular season last year but are equipped to give it another tilt this time around. Despite losing the talented Nuno Reis and Amido Baldé to parent club Sporting CP, they have moved to bolster the side with experience. Stef Wils will fill the hole at the heart of the defence, while Tim Smolders is a very canny signing in midfield to slot in alongside Arnar Vidarson. It will be difficult to miss the giant Michael Uchebo, signed from VVV Venlo and who has already been likened to coach Bob Peeters, whom Cercle are only too aware they’re very fortunate to have.
Last season: 7th place (1st in PO2 Group A, lost EL play-off to KAA Gent)
Head coach: Bob Peeters
Star player: Rudy
Title odds: 100/1
After seemingly overcoming their deep financial troubles, Beerschot hope to build towards establishing themselves in the PO1 in three seasons (if the format still exists). Chairman Patrick Vanoppen has overseen a radical rebuilding job with popular Club Brugge coach Adrie Koster arriving. Three highly-rated youngsters (Funso Ojo, Stijn Wuytens and Stefano Marzo) arrive from PSV along with the more experienced Bodor Boldiszar and Eliamane Coulibaly. The former Gent striker is more than capable of double figures if he gets good service from widemen Joachim Mununga and Bosnian Goran Galesic. Chicago Fire have taken Sherjill MacDonald but Hernan Losada is a class act – in a Beerschot shirt. Koster is known for bringing entertainment but he has a job on his hands to both gel this new-look squad together as well as ensure he has learned his lessons from his time at the Jan Breydelstadion.
Last season: 11th place (3rd in PO2 Group B)
Head coach: Adrie Koster
Star player: Eliamane Coulibaly
Title odds: 500/1
When Lokeren controversially went down to ten men in the Belgian Cup final, Kortrijk fans must have thought it was their night. A lack of attacking intent meant it wasn’t to be. And that leads us then to the upcoming campaign for last season’s shock PO1 team have lost offensive firepower in the shape of Anderlecht loanees Dalibor Veselinovic and Pablo Chavarria. Steven Joseph-Monrose is off to Racing Genk but the club have made use of their network just over the border in France to replenish their stocks. There is a strong spine to the team with the likes of Gertjan De Mets, Ervin Zukanovic and Nebojsa Pavlovic and look out for the exciting attacking midfielder Brecht Dejaegere, who is getting better all the time. Hein Vanhaezebrouck has worked wonders with the modest budget the club has to work with and they should have a reasonable time of things.
Last season: 6th place (6th in PO1), Belgian Cup finalists
Head coach: Hein Vanhaezebrouck
Star player: Ervin Zukanovic
Title odds: 250/1
Things are looking up again at a club, who since their promotion to the top flight in 2005, have repeatedly shown their ability to punch above their weight. Their success was largely built upon the coaching brilliance of Franky Dury, a former policeman. Having never fitted in at KAA Gent before joining the Belgian FA, he answered Essevee’s call last winter to rescue them after Darije Kalezic (named as the international Dury) didn’t work out. Franck Berrier and Mbaye Leye, both quality players on their day, returned after an unhappy spell at Standard and the club were back on the rails. Thomas Matton is a loss though (to rivals Kortrijk) and there are concerns over the depth of the squad but it should be a calmer campaign in 2012-13.
Last season: 13th place (2nd in PO2 Group B)
Head coach: Franky Dury
Star player: Franck Berrier
Title odds: 250/1