PO1: Zulte Waregem – Lokeren preview

The first game in PO1 may not involve any of the big four who made the top six but it provides a potentially intriguing start to this Easter weekend of football in Belgium. With no games on Easter Sunday, Zulte Waregem could find themselves top of the table when Anderlecht kick off at home to Genk on Monday should they take the three points this evening.

Your eyes did not deceive you – Zulte Waregem not Standard or Club Brugge or even KAA Gent, who are currently making light work of Mons in PO2. Francky Dury guided a side merely hoping for survival to second spot in the regular season and an impressive total of 60 points from 30 games.

And there have been some glorious moments for the Essevee fans to saviour. They won in Liège on the opening weekend, with ex-Rouche Franck Berrier scoring the winning goal. Thorgan Hazard has been a pleasant surprise and his winner spelled the end of Georges Leekens at Club Brugge while Berrier also ensured that Essevee secured a first ever win away to Anderlecht. In all three games, Zulte Waregem did not play like plucky underdogs but with calm, measured authority built on the foundations of a strong, all-Belgian back five.

The sceptics felt that the pressure had got to them when they were outplayed by a liberated Charleroi on a terrible surface only for Mbaye Leye to score a dramatic last-gasp winning goal and they bounced back from a home defeat to Club Brugge to win in Mechelen two weeks ago.

Francky Dury is understandably playing down his side’s chances of even a Champions League spot in public but it’s no fluke that Zulte Waregem are where they are in the standings. Given the congested nature of the play-offs with ten difficult games in quick succession, the format seems biased against surprise packages who may not have the depth of squad of the big boys and the consensus remains that Zulte Waregem will now fall away.

Dury has a miserable record in the play-offs and an albeit inferior Zulte Waregem struggled terribly in their previous play-off campaign in 2009-10 with just 4 points from 10 games. Tonight’s game is perhaps the ideal fixture to start to put that right but even if you believe captain and Mr. Consistent Davy De fauw when he says the pressure lies elsewhere with the big money teams, it would be a surprise if the greater spotlight had no negative effects whatsover on a side containing players unaccustomed to these heady heights.

Lokeren meanwhile have had a superb time of it lately, winning the Belgian Cup last season, making their first foray into Europe (a narrow defeat to Viktoria Plzen carried no embarrassment) and now finishing in the top six.

Peter Maes continues to forge a reputation as one of the best coaches in the country and has turned Lokeren into one of the best sides outside the big five in recent times. It’s no surprise that Club Brugge have shown an interest in appointing the former Anderlecht and Standard goalkeeper in the past.

Maes raised the eyebrows of those who felt Lokeren’s last game at Standard was a dead rubber but while the Pro League later revealed avoiding sixth spot did not necessarily mean avoiding the league leaders in the first game in the play-offs, Sporting comprehensively outfought and outplayed Standard at Sclessin to triumph 0-2. It was a significant win, marking the end of a stuttering five game run in which Lokeren had drawn every time.

The likes of Jérémy Taravel and Copa are now fully fit after injury lay-offs and while it’s a great shame that seven-goal Ayanda Patosi – he of stunning volley fame –  won’t be seen again until next season, Maes has other attacking options to call upon in the likes of Junior Dutra, Walter and strikers Hamdi Harbaoui and Benjamin Mokulu.

In the last meeting between these two, there was little to choose between them and though logic may point to Zulte Waregem’s home advantage, Lokeren won there 2-3 earlier in the season. After that game, Zulte Waregem lost just once more in 19 league games and though favourites tonight, Lokeren are not a side who can be easily dismissed.

A quick prediction for the whole of PO1 to end on after Chris Mayer (@TheBelgianWffle) threw down the gauntlet on Twitter yesterday:

1. Anderlecht
2. Racing Genk
3. Club Brugge
4. Zulte Waregem
5. Standard Liège
6. Lokeren

Your predictions are welcome below.

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