As Belgium’s final team bowed out of Europe, everyone is now on the final straight looking towards the playoffs. Anderlecht, Club Brugge and Gent have all booked their place in Playoffs 1. Who will join them for the title run-in?
Ah the playoffs. Loved by some, maligned by most. In the two seasons in which the Jupiler Pro League has adopted the mind-bogglingly complicated format, there’s been an awful playoffs and an exceptionally entertaining one.
Back in 09/10, Anderlecht walked to the title without defeat in the final ten games, seven wins and three draws. That season, teams like Sint Truiden, Kortrijk and Zulte Waregem made the top six and were seen to simply be making up the numbers.
Last season, it was completely different. Genk came out on top in the final game of the season, a draw enough to lift the title against comeback kings Standard Liege, who had come from 6th at the end of the regular season. Here’s my problem with the format – 6th place should not be allowed to have the chance to lift the title, having been poor for 3/4 of the season. Anderlecht who were top going into it promptly self-destructed and finished 3rd.
After 30 regular season games, the league splits into three sets of playoffs:
I’m only going to focus on Playoffs 1 here. The bottom two in Playoffs 3 (Westerlo and Sint Truiden) are already nailed on to get relegated – both have been as abject as it is humanly possible. So that’s that one sorted. First though, here’s a tremendous advert for the Playoffs featuring Milan Jovanovic as Napoloen Bonaparte. You wouldn’t see a Premier League player do that. Or act as well as Gent’s Bernd Thijs. It’s also funny how Meme Tchite is picked for the commercial when his team aren’t involved just yet.
With two games to go (played Sunday and Wednesday), three teams have already secured their place in the playoffs. Vastly superior to anyone else, Anderlecht (63 points), Club Brugge (55) and Gent (53) are all certain to be fighting for the title. There’s a pack of five teams behind them separated by six points, making a very interesting battle for Playoffs 1.
18/3 – Club Brugge (h)
21/3 – Lokeren (a)
Very much the surprise package of the division this year, Cercle Brugge have done extremely well on comparatively limited resources to their city neighbours. A link-up with Sporting Lisbon, combined with plucking Portguese players from nowhere like Rudy, and also having a rock solid defence have really made Cercle consistent. Praise goes out to Gregory Mertens and Kristof D’Haene: both only 21 and playing extremely well in the spine of the team. Bob Peeters has got his close-knit squad performing above expectations and a very good February of four straight wins puts Cercle in the driving seat here.
But a 4-0 defeat against Anderlecht shows you that they aren’t on the level of the bigger teams just yet. A tasty derby on Sunday followed by a tough away trip to in-form cup finallists Lokeren could mean nil points in these two games and an edgy final day. 46 points might even be enough, it’s that close.
18/3 – OH Leuven (h)
21/3 – Mechelen (a)
The less said about Hannover in the Europa League the better. Wasted chances in the first leg (finished 2-2) and being outclassed in Germany tell the story pretty much. But now Jose Riga has to lift the team and see them over the line. Standard have dipped recently quite badly, no doubt thanks to Europa distracting them, but with no one on the injury list anymore, they have the quality to compete in the playoffs at least. Leuven isn’t an easy place to go to, but should be a win. Mechelen could go either way but I suspect they won’t really care being marooned in Playoffs 2. Standard should coast into the playoffs, I have doubts over whether they can repeat last season’s near heroics.
18/3 – Westerlo (a)
21/3 – Gent (h)
Distraction – the one word to describe the champions season. Distractions off the field such as Anthony Vanden Borre’s strop and Kevin De Bruyne imminent departure have ultimately led to a lackadaisical approach on it. Injuries haven’t helped either with Genk’s defence being decimated early in the campaign and often led to midfielders dropping into centre-back positions. The midfield partnership of David Hubert and Daniel Toszer was broken up during the season and now is over for good (Hubert injured, Toszer Serie A bound).
They looked to have turned a corner under Mario Been recently until Kortrijk sneaked a last minute win two weeks ago. Bang in trouble and should be in most danger of missing out but might be saved by virtue of a strong goal difference and others slipping up. Anything could happen vs Gent and whilst they should beat Westerlo, nothing surprises me with Been’s Genk. They look like they don’t want to play for him.
18/3 – Gent (a)
21/3 – Beerschot (h)
Fuelled by a good home crowd, Kortrijk can on their day beat anyone, as shown by a last gasp win vs Genk. They’ve got some great players in there. The vibrant Frenchman Stephen Joseph Monrose has impressed me a lot, as has Ervin Zukanovic, Nebosja Pavlovic and Mustapha Oussalah. They’ve also used loans sensibly – bringing in Anderlecht duo ‘Big Serb’ Dalibor Veselinovic and Pablo Chavarria. After securing a cup final berth, they’ve been on the ropes losing 5-2 to cup final opponents Lokeren. And they had 10 men. Belgium is crazy.
At the risk of shooting myself in the foot, think they will lose the first game vs Gent and likely beat Beerschot. In all honesty, their minds should be on the cup final and the best way to win that I feel, is by playing lesser teams to generate momentum. They won’t get that in Playoffs 1.
18/3 – Beerschot (a)
21/3 – Cercle Brugge (h)
Finally, my favourite team to watch at the moment. Lokeren have practically come out of nowhere to have the faintest chance of reaching the playoffs. Benjamin De Ceulaer has been sensational in recent weeks, finding a golden touch and has a good understanding with Hamdi Harbouai. Nill De Pauw also looks to be a great prospect. The catalyst strangely appears to be the departure of Boubacar Barry to the African Cup of Nations yet he should regain his place in the team.
The team looks buoyant compared to the one in a mid-season slump and they’ve found a rich vein of form at the right time. Could easily win both of these games and put the frighteners up Genk.
The magic 46 points mark will be enough to qualify. Standard will get in easily. The rest will end up on 46 and a nail-biting Wednesday. I think Lokeren and Genk will just about make it, because of superior goal difference.