When it goes all the way…and beyond in Belgium
I wrote here that the system of play-offs we have in Belgium was a bit of a mish-mash because it consists a rehash of the regular season without any showpiece final at the end. However, by accident if not design, that’s effectively what we will have with Sunday’s showdown in Brussels between Anderlecht and Zulte Waregem. We look back at two magnificent title shootouts in recent times.
Anderlecht v Standard Liège 2009
During the last season before the play-offs were introduced, Anderlecht and Standard went toe-to-toe for the title with les Rouches looking to retain the championship. Anderlecht were favourites having the easier run-in on paper but it didn’t appear that way when they they were 1-0 down in Tubize with ten men. Marcin Wasilewski, who makes his final Anderlecht appearance tomorrow, equalised in the 96th minute to ensure they were level on points with Standard.
On the final day, Standard were away to KAA Gent, who were themselves going for third (and coached by Standard’s previous title winning boss Michel Preud’homme) while Anderlecht secured a comfortable 0-2 victory in Genk. Standard held the most fragile of 0-1 leads thanks to a penalty from Axel Witsel, taken only after he’d won the argument with Milan Jovanovic. Gent were handed a most incredible lifeline in stoppage time when Oguchi Onyewu brought down Milos Maric inside the box. I watched the game in a bar in Louvain-la-Neuve and you could have heard a pin drop. Gent’s best player Bryan Ruiz stepped up only to see his spot kick parried away by Sinan Bolat. The bar erupted and at the final whistle, every player ran to embrace Bolat. It remains one of the most memorable days of my life.
Apparently some of the Anderlecht players were under the impression that Ruiz had scored, making it all the more cruel when the true picture became clear. That wasn’t quite the end of the Ruiz incident though. Anderlecht smelt a rat, claiming that Ruiz had already agreed to join Standard (he went to Twente). Jelle van Damme said, “Even my granny could have saved it” and Juhász Roland remarked that “It’s better he doesn’t pick Anderlecht”. As there was no provision to decide the league on either goals scored or goal difference (both of which favoured Anderlecht), there had to be two “testmatches” – one in Brussels and one in Liège.
There was panic in Louvain-la-Neuve because the testmatches were not included in the main TV deal. Belgacom were outbid for the rights by BeTV, which almost nobody had. Fortunately, a bar close to where I lived not only had the channel but put a television outside for everyone to enjoy both games in the sunshine we had been blessed with. I felt that Standard would win as they not only had a stellar team but Anderlecht to me had beaten themselves up in the aftermath of the Ruiz penalty drama.
Standard began well in Brussels with Dalmat somehow hitting the post when scoring was easier before De Camargo hit the woodwork from 25 yards. The home fans booed the teams off at halftime but the mood was very different ten minutes into the second half. Substitute Jonathan Legear sneaked in behind Wilfried Dalmat at the far post to head Anderlecht into the lead and les Mauve et Blanc were in the ascendancy but not for long. Eight minutes later, Mehdi Carcela-Gonzalez’s magnificent cross from the left was bettered only by the perfect header from Dieumerci Mbokani against his former (and future) employers. Although Standard were reduced to ten men, they held on for a 1-1 draw to take back to Liège.
Oli Deschacht set the tone, picking up an early booking in a match, which resembled war more than football. Tackles were flying in and tempers were flaring in front of a vociferous full house. Standard were awarded a penalty seven minutes before time when Mbokani was eased off the ball by Victor Bernardez. Anderlecht felt it was a soft decision but once again it would be Witsel to take a clutch penalty for his side. Davy Schollen went the right away but Witsel placed it beyond his outstretched left hand. Standard played the best football of the testmatches for ten minutes after the interval before Bolat knocked out Mbark Boussoufa when he was too late coming out to clear a corner. If Anderlecht felt they deserved a penalty, they had no cause for complain when twice Wasilewski escaped a red card for a vicious elbow. A certain Romelu Lukaku made his debut but Standard saw out the match and clinched a second successive title. It was a brilliant side with the likes of Onyewu, Witsel, Defour, Jovanovic, Mbokani and De Camargo, the like of which has in my view not been seen since.
Racing Genk v Standard Liège – 2011
Two years later, Standard were again involved in a heartstopping climax to the season but this time under the play-off system. They had lost Onyewu, Mbokani, Jovanovic and De Camargo but Witsel and Defour were still there, Carcela was truly blossoming and Eliaquim Mangala was a mainstay at the back. However, they finished sixth after the regular season, a full 16 points off Anderlecht and 15 off Genk. Anderlecht never recovered from losing the brilliant Boussoufa in March to Anji and lost five games in PO1. Standard went on an incredible run, winning eight from nine, setting up a showdown on the final day in Genk. Like tomorrow, Genk knew a point would suffice whereas Standard needed to win.
Unfortunately, the game was defined by one of the most upsetting things I have witnessed on the pitch. Carcela and Chris Mavinga were involved in a race for the ball when the Genk leftback caught Carcela flush in the face and sent the tricky winger crashing to the floor, unsurprisingly rendering him unconscious. The worry, fear and panic on the faces of both sets of players was palpable as the Moroccan international did not respond. I must admit at the time, I genuinely feared the worst and that thought undoubtedly went through a few other minds as well. Carcela did come round and had not only suffered severe concussion but had broken his cheekbone in several places. He made a full recovery and recently admitted the incident brought him to the attention of more clubs – he joined Anji despite initially planning to stay another year in Liège.
The Standard players were particularly hit by the incident and would say afterwards that it affected them to such an extent that it was a decisive factor in their failure to win the game. However, they did take the lead in first half stoppage time. Genk failed to deal with Defour’s far post free kick and Mangala bundled the ball home to raise hopes of completing an astonishing comeback. With less than 15 minutes remaining, Genk coach Francky Vercauteren threw on Kennedy in place of David Hubert. With his first touch, the Nigerian headed Töszér Daniel’s corner into the net – a point being enough for Genk. Standard gavea it everything but were denied by a confident but young and inexperienced goalkeeper, who made three outstanding point-blank saves to keep them at bay. Thibaut Courtois would go on to establish himself as Belgium’s number one and he has been a key player as Atletico Madrid have helped themselves to three trophies in two seasons. Genk have since won the Belgian Cup and are firmly entrenched now as a genuine top club alongside the traditional big three. Standard are yet to recover and face the possibility of another year without European football.
If tomorrow brings half the drama of the two aforementioned title races, it promises to be a cracker. Last day fever grips Belgian football once more.