Belgium National Team

Anderlecht seal 32nd title with draw over Zulte Waregem

39 games comes down to this. In one corner, the undisputed heavyweight of Belgian football only needing a draw to secure Title No.32. In the other, the underdog who’ve been knocking at the door the entire season. Drama? You bet. They may have an identical playoffs record (W4 D2 L3), but Anderlecht and Zulte Waregem are really poles apart when it comes to Belgian football. John Van den Brom’s Anderlecht have led the way through most of the regular season and playoffs. With a budget of €40m, they are expected to win the league every year with the calibre of squad on hand to them. In contrast, Zulte Waregem were 13th last season and weren’t expected to mount anything close to a title push this time round, with a budget of €7.5m. But thanks to inspirational coach Francky Dury, Essevee have upset the apple cart with largely with a team of castoffs and youngsters. Their away form in particular is formidable, having won at Anderlecht earlier in the season.

Unlike the playoffs themselves, the premise was simple. Anderlecht only needed a draw to retain their title, but a win for Zulte Waregem would see them lift their first ever championship. However, if Zulte Waregem lost, they could be pipped by Club Brugge to the promised land of Champions League football, if they managed to beat Genk. The magnitude of the fixture clearly played a part in the early going. While Anderlecht controlled the tempo, they never really pressed home their slight possession advantage. Zulte Waregem seemed content to play on the counter with Jens Naessens in particularly finding room on the right. Perhaps it was too equally matched teams cancelling each other out. Essevee held firm, especially with Junior Malanda in the centre, and quelled any Anderlecht attack well. The fact that Anderlecht took until 40 minutes to muster a shot on target – Guillaume Gillet heading it straight at Sammy Bossut from a deep Lucas Biglia free-kick – told you all you needed to know. The tension was palpable.

Chances were at a premium for both teams. Thorgan Hazard and standout Mbaye Leye combined several times excellently in the opening 45 minutes. The younger Rode Duivel had an opportunity to take the lead but Silvio Proto reacted quickly to mop up the defensive sluggishness The Chelsea loanee took time to make an impact in the game, having excelled against Club Brugge earlier in the week. He was confidently kept quiet on the left by Gillet and had to work hard to find space, following his hunting partner Leye around the field. Dury’s side gave away some needless fouls towards near the break, and it was the last chance of the half that almost punished them. Lucas Biglia whipped in another dead-ball situation to find Bram Nuytinck, but the Dutch U21 international’s header rattled back off the crossbar, a relief to the travelling support.

Recognising the need for a goal, the Zulte Waregem coach swallowed his pride and sent on the exiled midfielder Franck Berrier for Ibrahima Conte. The Frenchman had in recent weeks angered his teammates with his actions, after making clear he wants to leave the club, threatening to break apart this close-knit side. But his arrival brought about the desired change Dury was looking for. Leye and Hazard again worked together on the right, before the Senegalese striker teed up Jens Naessens on the far side, who placed his header past Proto. Against all odds, Essevee had taken the lead with their only shot on target. It lasted only two minutes. A foul on the edge of the area gave Biglia another chance from a set-piece. This time the Argentinian had a huge slice of luck, as his shot deflected off the wall and past Sammy Bossut. Not that the 40,000 strong crowd mattered.

Immediately following Biglia’s goal, John van den Brom opted to shut up shop, taking off Dennis Praet and Behrang Safari for the assumed safer heads of Olivier Deschacht and Demy De Zeeuw. The left-back however was lucky to stay on the field for a challenge on Leye. Yet despite a draw being enough, Anderlecht had the next chance to take the lead. Dieumerci Mbokani, linked with West Bromwich Albion during the week, expertly found Mati Suarez with a lofted ball over the back four. However El Magico could only chip the bar. More drama was to come as Cheikhou Kouyaté rashly jumped into Jens Naessens and saw red, leaving Les Mauves with ten men, for the final ten. On came Marcin Wasilewski for his final appearance to help keep it level. Zulte Waregem threw everything at Anderlecht but to no avail, and Anderlecht secured a record 32nd league title in nail-bitingly tense circumstances. There was no underdog victory at the Vanden Stock, but the draw meant Zulte Waregem qualified for the European Champions League playoff round – something which Francky Dury and his team could only have dreamed of last summer. Beating most of the established order of Club Brugge, Genk and Standard to second is a magnificent achievement, ultimately coming up just short of the crown. John van den Brom gets his first title in his debut season in Belgium and you have to hand it to Anderlecht. They may have done it the hard way, but ultimately, they were the best side in the country this year.

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