Below is an explanation of how the play-offs in Belgium work.
If you want analysis of the system and some alternative solutions, you can find them here.
The Jupiler Pro League first brought in the controversial play-off system for the 2009-10 season in order to add excitement and interest to the league, as well as guaranteeing more fixtures for all sixteen teams and television – thus more money. Ironically, they came in after arguably the most gripping finish to a season anywhere in Europe in 2009, which culminated in Standard Liège defeating Anderlecht over two so-called “testmatches”. Most of the top clubs were the prime movers behind the unusual change, in particular Anderlecht and KAA Gent, due to their chairman Ivan De Witte also heading up the Pro League at the time. Standard, who prefer the more traditional format, have always opposed the format though their current chairman Roland Duchâtelet favours a BeNeLeague. There have already been some tweaks to the system and more may be in the offing but below I explain how the play-offs currently work.
All 16 sides in the league play each other both home and away. After 30 games, the top six form what is known as Play-Off 1, which ultimately determines the league champions. Their points from the regular season are halved before each side plays every other twice. If a side finishes with an odd number of points, their total is rounded up. In the event of teams being locked together on points, the decider is the number of games won in PO1. The side who finish top are champions and are currently awarded a place in the Champions League group stage. The runners-up go into the Champions League qualifiers for non-champions (third round) with third place guaranteeing a Europa League slot.
The sides who place from 7th to 14th go into Play-Off 2, in which they are divided into two groups of four. Each side plays the other three in their group home and away, with all teams’ points totals from the regular season reset to zero. The two group winners then play off to determine who will meet the fourth placed outfit in PO1 for the final Europa League spot. If the winner of PO2 is already guaranteed a Europa League spot through the Belgian Cup, this final fixture is not played. As you may have worked out, this means it is possible for a team finishing as low as fourteenth in the regular season to qualify for Europe, whereas theoretically the regular season champions could miss out completely.
Sometimes known as the “playdowns”, which make one think of American Football, the actual format is more akin to cricket. The bottom two sides face each other in up to five consecutive games. The side finishing 15th has a three-point headstart and plays three games at home. Again, the tie-breaker is the number of games won in PO3, favouring the side who finished 16th. If either team builds an unassailable lead, the remaining games are cancelled. The winner goes into the D2 play-offs with three teams from the lower tier, who play in a round-robin format. The loser is relegated to the Belgacom League and is replaced in the top division by the D2 champions.