Zulte Waregem 3-4 Standard Liège: It all goes wrong for Essevee

In what was comfortably the most memorable game of the play-offs so far, Standard Liège came from 3-1 down to win 3-4 away to Zulte Waregem and once again deny the season’s surprise package the chance to go top. It will be a bitter pill to swallow for Essevee, who conceded at least one offside goal and saw Mbaye Leye harshly sent off.

Francky Dury named his strongest team with the exception of Sammy Bossut, who remained on the bench as he is reportedly not 100% fit, meaning Sébastien Bruzzese continued to deputise. Mircea Rednic sprung a surprise by including Kensuke Nagai and Adrian Cristea instead of top scorer Imoh Ezekiel and Paul-José Mpoku. It was a decision the Romanian coach would be forced to revisit.

It didn’t take long for Zulte Waregem to open the scoring and they did so with one of the goals of the season. If Ayanda Patosi’s stunning volley was a wonderful piece of individual skill, Mbaye Leye’s strike displayed the equally alluring beauty of a finely crafted team goal. Berrier, Malanda and Hazard were all involved in a series of short passes and quick combinations, which culminated in Leye driving the ball past Kawashima at his near post. At no point did Standard’s defence ever look likely to respond, so spellbound were they by the most fluid of attacks down their left-hand side.

Zulte Waregem celebrate after Jelle van Damme's own goal.

Zulte Waregem celebrate after Jelle van Damme’s own goal.

During the half-time break, Essevee defender Karel D’Haene rightly admitted his side had rested on their laurels following that goal. Standard came more and more into the game with Batshuayi inches away from making contact with Opare’s cross and Buyens volleying over. The equaliser eventually came on 41 minutes. A rushed clearance from Delaplace landed at the feet of William Vainqueur, who produced a magnificent and  powerful shot, which swung away from Bruzzese and into the net, via the underside of the crossbar.

Les Rouches nevertheless found themselves in arrears at the break. Thorgan Hazard, who gave one of his best performances for Zulte Waregem, swung in a near post free kick, which was inadvertently headed into his own net by Standard captain Jelle van Damme.  Yoni Buyens was honest enough at the break to say that Hazard’s set-pieces caused no end of problems for his defence.

Rednic had to act and he brought on Mpoku for Cristea, who once more looked like a fish out of water. Standard should have equalised when Nagai played a neat ball through to Bulot, who was let down by a heavy touch. The French midfielder cost €2m last summer from Caen but he continues to flatter to deceive, which is frustrating given his ability. Instead Zulte Waregem extended their lead. This time Berrier was the set-piece architect and Bruno Godeau leapt above Buyens to head past Kawashima.

At that very moment, it was almost inconceivable that Zulte Waregem would not finally succeed in reaching the summit (at least temporarily) but from then on, things went rapidly downhill.

Paul-José Mpoku led the charge of the Standardmen with a rocket of his own from 25 yards, which Bruzzese could only watch go in off the post. Suddenly, Zulte Waregem looked more vulnerable than at perhaps any time this season but the nature of how they then fell behind will undoubtedly rankle.

Belgium u21 international Paul-José Mpoku had a real impact off the bench. (Photo Credit: Standard de Liège)

Belgium u21 international Paul-José Mpoku had a real impact off the bench. (Photo Credit: Standard de Liège)

Mpoku delivered the free kick from the right, which looked to have been glanced on at the near post by Buyens. The header found the unmarked Kanu at the back stick and the centre-back with the shock of red in his long hair stabbed the ball home to level the game. Whether or not Buyens got a touch, Zulte Waregem uncharacteristically froze at the wrong moment.  Dury was crestfallen on the touchline and whether or not he realised that the linesman had erred, his expression betrayed the fact that he felt his side’s title chances were disappearing before his eyes.

Standard could have had a penalty when Mpoku went down under Malanda’s challenge and their substitute goalkeeper Anthony Moris then picked up a booking as the game took on even more twists and turns. Eleven minutes from time, the winning goal arrived. Bulot turned Colpaert inside the penalty box, drove towards the by-line and squared the ball for Ezekiel, who found the roof of the net from two yards. That the Nigerian striker was offside did not prevent him from registering his 15th league goal of the season.

There was to be salt rubbed into the Zulte Waregem wounds late on when Mbaye Leye was sent off for shoving Mpoku to the ground. The Standard midfielder milked it as most players do but Jérôme Efong Nzolo rarely passes up the chance to be the centre of attention and he inflamed the situation by producing a red card. It now leaves Francky Dury without his most reliable forward for the upcoming matches.

Once again we have seen a top game in Belgium marred and blighted by incompetent if not downright amateur officiating. Having a football team of referees and assistants has been shown not to work. It’s tough to see Zulte Waregem picking themselves up now but Standard won’t be worrying one jot – they dispayed their battling qualities and are now right in contention.

PO1: Anderlecht 35, Zulte Waregem* 34, Standard Liège* 32, Racing Genk 32, Club Brugge 30, Lokeren 27.

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