A nail-biting finale to the season in Belgium saw Standard Liege retain their title following a play-off victory over rivals Anderlecht.
By Nicholas Harling
The national team may not be going to South Africa for the World Cup Finals next year, and the country’s clubs failed to reach the later stages of the European competitions but, at home, the league season had everything going for it, reaching an exciting conclusion when Anderlecht and Standard Liege finished level on 77 points.
Goal difference would have sufficed in most other nations – making Anderlecht champions – but Belgium likes to be different, so the two had to go head-to-head in a two-legged play-off, the first since 1986, to determine which city would be celebrating. Ultimately, Standard emerged victorious, albeit by the narrowest of margins, to win their 10th title.
The season had been a slow burner with as many as six clubs harbouring hopes of capturing the trophy. As the passion increased, and the suspense mounted, one by one their challenge crumbled. Gent, the two Bruges clubs and Genk all fell by the wayside, leaving Anderlecht and Standard to fight it out.
Both teams won their last league game of the season. With a goal from Mbark Boussoufa, who was voted player of the season, Anderlecht’s 2-0 win in Genk was less dramatic than Standard’s 1-0 victory over Gent, who missed a penalty in injury time. But for Sinan Bolat’s save from Costa Rica international Bryan Ruiz, Standard would have conceded their title
there and then.
The first leg of the play-off finished 1-1 in Brussels, with Anderlecht going ahead with a header from substitute Jonathan Legear before Standard replied in similar fashion through Dieumerci Mbokani. The visitors survived the last nine minutes with 10 men following the expulsion of Tomislav Mikulic for two yellow cards. The second leg was a much-interrupted, foul-ridden affair, decided by Axel Witsel’s 40th-minute penalty for a foul on Mbokani by Victor Bernardez.
Under Laszlo Boloni, the Romanian who was voted coach of the season, Standard underwent something of an endurance test since they also featured strongly in Europe, taking Liverpool all the way in the Champions League in a gallant bid to reach the group stages. With Witsel such an inspiration in midfield that he was voted best Belgian player of the year, they drew 0-0 in Liege and only lost 1-0 at Anfield.
Entering the UEFA Cup, Standard confirmed their newly established reputation as worthy opponents by winning a difficult group that included Sevilla, Sampdoria, Stuttgart and Partizan Belgrade. Having earlier eliminated Everton, Standard then somewhat surprisingly went out to Braga in Portugal.
Belgium’s first two representatives in the new Europa League will be Club Brugge and Gent, who can look back on a fantastic campaign under Michel Preud’homme. The previous season he had taken Standard to their first title in 25 years before leaving the Stade Maurice Dufrasne in somewhat mysterious circumstances.
Genk’s consolation for dropping out of the title race was to capture the Cup with a 2-0 win in the Final over Mechelen, whose chances receded with the 28th-minute dismissal of Jeroen Mellemans for bringing down Marvin Ogunjimi. The former Mechelen youth-team player responded with the two goals that gave Genk their third triumph in the knockout competition.
Mons, fast becoming the country’s yo-yo club, and promoted Tubize languished some way below the rest and were relegated to the second division automatically. In order to preserve their status, Roeselare and Dender, who finished immediately above the doomed pair, were forced to participate in end-of-season play-offs along with Lierse and Antwerp, who had finished behind second-tier champions St Truiden.
Colombian striker Jaime Alfonso Ruiz, who plays for unfashionable Westerlo, headed the scoring charts with just 17 goals – the lowest total since 1973.
Next season the first division will contain 16 teams instead of 18, with the champions and European berths to be decided by controversial play-offs at the end of the season. Sceptics have come out in force to vent their anger at the new formula, insisting that no good will come from the scheme.
Coach of ther year
Laszlo Boloni (Standard)
Displayed a fantastic vision and ability to motivate players in the process of guiding Standard to a successful defence of their title
Player of the year
Milan Jovanovic (Standard)
Not only scored some decisive goals but provided wholehearted support that galvanised his team mates, especially the younger ones.
Newcomer of the season
Tom De Sutter (Anderlecht)
Adjusted well to Anderlecht’s style of play following his move from Cercle Bruges, scoring nine goals to take his new club to the brink of the title.