Jupiler Pro League Half-Term Report

As the players of the Jupiler Pro League return from some recuperation and sunshine in far off exotic isles on their winter break, now seems the ideal time to run through the season so far, with 21 games done and dusted. Let’s run through all 16 clubs, from the title contenders to the relegation flirters, to see who has impressed this season and who has failed to meet expectations.

1st – Standard Liège – 48 points The pacesetters since the first ball was kicked, Guy Luzon’s side could and perhaps should have built a commanding lead at the top of the table. Despite all the protestations at owner Roland Duchâtelet before a ball was kicked in the summer, on the field, the team have united brilliantly. Key to their success has been the team’s front four – young striking duo Michy Batshuayi and Imoh Ezekiel continue to improve in front of goal, while Geoffrey Mujangi Bia and Paul-Jose Mpoku are proving to be tricky opposition on the flanks. Add to that an experienced defence, which didn’t concede a goal in the opening six matches this season, the balance of the side is perfect. October and November weren’t particularly great on the European front, as Luzon’s insistence on rotation left Standard last in an fairly easy group. But only one defeat in the league suggests they are the team to beat this season.

Grade – Aside from a poor showing in Europe, they’ve been ruthlessly pragmatic domestically as typified by their 5-1 win over Kortrijk. A

2nd – Anderlecht – 44 points Last year’s champions are only slightly off the pace, despite enduring an inconsistent season so far. In the early going, Anderlecht had little trouble dispatching the smaller sides of the division but came unstuck badly against teams considered their near equal.This was best seen in their 4-0 defeat to Club Brugge in September, where more or less anything that could go wrong did. The Champions League proved to be a big distraction too, with the relatively novice side struggling against the might of PSG, Olympiakos and Benfica. But a 1-1 draw with the Parisians in November proved to be a catalyst for Les Mauves, having lost once in the league since. The signing of Aleksandr Mitrovic has helped give John van den Brom a true striker up front and with no European distractions in the New Year, Anderlecht’s squad should push on for a good finish, as is the norm. Especially if they manage to prise Thorgan Hazard away from Zulte Waregem.

Grade – Stuttering performances domestically and in the Champions League left van den Brom in a perilous position, but an albeit bland recovery in December has put them in touching distance. C.

3rd – Club Brugge – 43 points The ambitious board had reason to believe that this season would finally be the one in which they broke their trophy drought, especially after a strong showing in the Playoffs the previous campaign. However, things didn’t get off to the best of stats, with Juan Carlos’ Garrido’s side falling embarrassingly to Slask Wroclaw in the Europa League qualifying rounds. From there on the Spaniard was on borrowed time, and although defeats weren’t coming their way, drab performances littered August and September. The former Villarreal boss was sent packing and was replaced by Belgian goalkeeping legend Michel Preud’homme. A 4-0 defeat of Anderlecht right away lifted the mood before stuttering through October. The good news is Tom De Sutter looks to be gaining confidence up front and the midfield has begun to click. The over-reliance on Maxime Lestienne might be unavoidable but could burn him out.

Grade – Functional but never really thrilling, Preud’homme will be hoping for a strong 2014. C.

4th – Zulte Waregem – 41 points The miracle work of Francky Dury continues at Essevee, with likely Golden Boot Thorgan Hazard once again stealing the show. Anderlecht have come sniffing during January, and it’s vital that Zulte Waregem hold onto him if they want to repeat last year’s remarkable playoff run. They will also be missing Junior Malanda, who has departed for Wolfsburg as agreed at the start of the season. Fortunately, Sven Kums and Mamatou N’Diaye should be able to carry the load. As for their year so far, they’ve only been beaten twice in 21 games (Genk and Anderlecht away) plus a valiant effort in the Europa League which just came up short. If they can hold onto Hazard, there’s no reason to suggest they won’t be there or thereabouts in March to May. The problem could be their relatively thin squad which has already played a lot of games. Replenishing their batteries in the winter break could be an ideal tonic.

Grade – Under the guidance of Francky Dury (who’s signed a long contract at the club), the team bond couldn’t be stronger. B

5th – Lokeren – 36 points Another example to the mid-range clubs of Belgium of how to run things. Peter Maes continues to build an impressive side capable of upsetting the big boys, and no scalp came bigger than Anderlecht on the opening day. Summer signing Hans Vanaken, who joined from Lommel United, scored twice on that day and has proved to be a revelation in midfield with his creativity. Fellow new arrival Jordan Remacle was also key in the early going. Hamdi Harbaoui has upped his goalscoring contributions too, though fell away in December slightly. Maes has also made Lokeren a solid side, having kept nine clean sheets so far. The man key to that, Jeremy Taravel, has left for Dinamo Zagreb, which might cause a problem.

Grade – Strong at both ends of the pitch, they should be favourites for 6th spot. With a bit of luck could go further. B.

6th – Genk – 35 points Belgium’s only remaining representative in a continental competition looked confident of a title push, but it hasn’t really materialised. Their performances are often reliant on Jelle Vossen, and with the Belgian international having not scored since the beginning of November in the league, they have slid down the table. Mario Been had made Genk hard to break down, with Koulibaly and Mbodj working well at the back. However in December, the team looked jaded and lacking in ideas. One win in seven puts Been under huge pressure and he’ll hoping to return to winning ways. The return of Ilombe Mboyo up top might provide the spark.

Grade – Great in Europe, but domestic form has suffered because of it. C.

7th – Kortrijk – 29 points Kortrijk’s big problem last season was their lack of an out-and-out goalscorer. The signing of Ivan Santini had alleviated that concern, with the Croatian finding the net regularly in the early matches. However, his contributions have dried up in recent weeks, and like Genk, Kortrijk have struggled to keep pace with those around them. The 5-1 home hammering by Standard  and 5-2 defeat to indifferent Mechelen suggested KVK were weary-legged and needed a break, particularly those in midfield and defence, offering little security to Darren Keet. Vanhaezebrouck may need to find extra players to help them regain their flow, but with money scant, it may not be possible.

Grade – Strong start but one win since the beginning of November in all competitions suggest a rethink is needed. C

8th – Gent – 27 points New stadium, new coach(es), same old Gent. The Ghelamco Arena hasn’t really proven to be a fortress for De Buffalos, seeing just four wins so far and three of those came in August. Victor Fernandez was dispatched in September for shoddy league form, before Mircea Rednic (who had beaten Gent 7-1 last season with Standard) took the helm. Since then Gent’s dodgy league form has continued, with November alone offering solace for fans. Yassine El Ghannassy’s petulant streak has on numerous occasions threatened to undermine on-field matters, and despite his talent, he needs to move on for the sake of himself, Rednic and the rest of the team. On the plus side, the signing of Habib Habibou could inject some life into the attack.

Grade – Mostly poor throughout but results against teams below leave them marooned in mid-table. D.

9th – Cercle Brugge – 26 points After Lorenzo Staelens miraculously kept Cercle in the top-flight against the odds, the smaller Jan Breydel resident have quietly gone about their business to little fanfare. But the coach has instilled a good work ethic in the squad. Consistency isn’t there yet but big results have been, particularly the derby win over Club Brugge plus a 3-0 victory over Genk before the break. Gangly striker Michael Uchebo looks competent at times (an improvement), Junior Kabananga has performed well on occasion while Cameroonian Gael Etock slowly finds his feet. They don’t score enough, they concede a lot, yet they get results when it matters.

Grade – Safe from the drop unlike last year, Staelens and co can enjoy their remaining games. C.

10th – Sporting Charleroi – 24 points A fairly average season so far for Les Zebres, never really in danger but never really hitting their stride either. David Pollet has been the standout during 2013 for them, firing in 11 goals. Should he leave in January, it will be a big loss. Two players have already departed – Danijel Milicevic to Gent, a big loss in midfield, while Onur Kaya has gone to Lokeren. Fortunately for them, Harlem Gnohere and Neeskens Kebano both are capable of steering them away form a crisis. It could be quite tough regardless.

Grade – Along came Pollet and lifted the side. Without him, they might have issues. C.

11th – KV Oostende – 22 points Nailed on to struggle from the off, KV Oostende have been the surprise package of the Jupiler Pro League. The plucky underdogs ran the bigger sides close in the early parts of the season, but the 4-0 win over Genk really sounded their arrival to the top-flight. The loan deals of Anderlecht’s Fernando Canesin and Jordan Lukaku have helped somewhat, but it’s Franck Berrier and Laurent Depoitre who make them tick. Owner Marc Coucke’s business in the summer has reaped its rewards and they look likely to extend their stay for another season at least. The deal for Didier Ovono looks a good one too, although he looks minutes away from a mistake at some point. At least, he’s exciting!

Grade – A bad start but eventually found their place in top flight. Performing way above expectations. A.

12th – Lierse –  20 points Another team who could be drawn into a relegation battle. Lierse don’t draw often, preferring to go all for broke in search of a win. This often leaves them ridiculously exposed. The other scenario is they forget to turn up (see 4-0 defeat to Genk and 5-0 defeat to Standard). A lot rests on the head of Hernan Losada and he just hasn’t performed to the levels he can hit. Rachid Bourabia is the only player who can claim a modicum of praise so far from Stanley Menzo’s side. Tony Watt’s spell at the club has been odd, with his battle with the managers overshadowing his excellent cameos from the bench.

Grade – Run of the mill side who lack creativity and guile. D.

13th – Mechelen – 20 points Arguably the side who have disappointed the most so far in the league. Mechelen should be contesting for the top 6, but instead have lumbered from defeat to defeat with little inspiration from their former manager or anyone on the field. With their top-scorers being Seth De Witte and David Destorme (five each), it’s clear that the strikers need to up their game – namely Benjamin Mokulu and Mads Junker. A 5-2 over Kortrijk gave the club some welcome respite, but inconsistency crept in again. Harm van Veldhoven’s time was up, with Francky Vercauteren taking the reins during the break. He should lift them.

Grade – Dull and infuriating side who really should be better than this. E.

14th – OH Leuven – 19 points A sleeper season thus far for OHL and Ronny van Geneugden. Their away form has been abysmal, as they are the only side yet to win on the road so far. Their home form by contrast has been good, with just defeats against Genk and Oostende so far. However, much of the talking recently has been about crowd anti-hero Bjorn Ruytinx, for his conduct on the field. He scored twice in the 3-0 over Cercle to give them a much-needed win, and could offer a way out of the relegation trouble.

Grade – Little success to report and could be dragged into relegation battle if things don’t improve. D

15th – Waasland-Beveren – 17 points More than a dozen new names arrived at Waasland-Beveren before the season began, but none have really made an impact at the club. Glen de Boeck was offered time to sort out, but with just one win to his name, he was given the boot. In came Bob Peeters who eventually steadied the ship with back-to-back wins before the winter break. A pitiful return of 16 goals in 21 games gives you an idea of where the biggest problem now lies, with Peeters making Waasland-Beveren at least capable of defending. A shock win at the Jan Breydel against Club Brugge was their highlight of the campaign so far.

Grade – Shot shy and looked destined for Playoffs 3 unless a striker finds his rhythm. E.

16th – Mons – 13 points With little strengthening in the summer, one of the top flight’s smaller clubs were always likely to be involved in a dogfight down the bottom of the league. But no one really expected them to be this bad. One of Belgium’s best exports, Enzo Scifo looked despondent in the dugout and couldn’t fathom which area of the team was the worst. Little goals to show for their efforts, but plenty of diabolical defending, Scifo departed in September. Cedomir Janevski took over and little changed quickly. However, there was a mini-revival in December, as Mons won three of five to at least make it a contest.

Grade – Awful until December where they actually showed some fight. Outside chance of escaping the drop, when they looked doomed. E.

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