May 18, 2011 1 Comment
After 40 games of typically mad Belgian football, KRC Genk won the ‘winner take all’ tie against Standard Liege last night to claim their 3rd Pro League title in their history and their first since 2002.
The playoffs, as controversial as they are, did manage to throw up a perfect finale to a gruellingly long season. Standard Liege who finished 6th after the regular season of 30 games, hit perfect form at the business end of the season. They came into the game at Cristal Arena with 8 wins from 9 playoff games, whilst Genk had stuttered after a 3-0 beating against Club Brugge.
The unique situation regarding the playoffs meant that Genk and Standard went into the game on level points, but Genk were theoretically 0.5 points ahead. When the points were halved, any team on a odd number were rounded up to a full number, so Standard were given an extra half point. Yes, this is the only league in the world (probably) with this formula. This meant that Genk needed only a draw to lift the championship.
Standard Liege started the game the brighter, with their five man midfield holding the ball well. Former Wolves player Jelle Van Damme, who has been Standard Liege’s catalyst in the second half of the season, was allowed too much space and hit the bar with a cross.
Then the sickening turning point. Nifty winger, Mehdi Carcela was knocked out after a stray boot from Liverpool loanee, Chris Mavinga, and he hit the floor violently. Medical staff immediately rushed onto the field. It was rather similar to the John Terry incident at the League Cup final, in that Carcela’s face felt the full force of Mavinga’s boot. It left the Standard players stunned, notably Mémé Tchité who had to be consoled by a team-mate. Carcela was taken straight to hospital, and diagnosed with a broken nose and fractured jaw.
Genk took advantage and went close with two efforts, one of which was a terrible miss by Marvin Ogunjimi. Their star young-gun Kevin De Bruyne, supposedly the target of many clubs, never stopped trying and was the main creative threat for Genk.
But then the pendulum swung back to the away side right before the end of the half. A curling free-kick by Steven Defour, hit Mavinga on the leg and Eli Mangala got the final touch, sending the away end into raptures. The perfect time to score as well, 2 minutes into injury time.
The second half began as expected with a Genk onslaught. They controlled the game looking for that vital equaliser. Standard keeper Sinan Bolat was in fine form though; first stopping Ogunjimi then tipping a De Bruyne free kick around the post.
Vercauteren then rolled the dice with an attacking substitution, taking off masked captain David Hubert and replacing him with Nigerian Kennedy Nwanganga, who had been on the fringes after signing this year. He’s certainly written his name into Genk folklore now though, with a fantastic header 2 minutes after coming on. The Cristal Arena erupted and the tide turned once again.
The Standard fightback ensued, searching frantically for a goal. But Genk can thank their 19 year-old keeper Thibaut Courtois for producing three excellent saves, two of which from close range. He’s been sensational this year, playing every minute of a title-winning campaign. There have been rumours that Manchester United has scouted him, and I hope they were watching this performance – tremendous composure for a teenage goalkeeper.
Genk held out and the Genk fans invaded the pitch before the trophy was lifted. Manager Franky Vercauteren ran onto the pitch fist clenched to celebrate with his players. He left Anderlecht in 2007 after poor results and a forgettable spell as national team coach, ‘The Little Prince’ has exorcised the demons of the past with this campaign. His policy of integrating youth players with a solid core at the back has paid dividends and many would agree that Genk deserve their title this season.
As for Standard Liege, they should be commended for a tremendous comeback in 2011, but it looks like the end of Dominque D’Onofrio’s tenure as manager. At times it seemed that Sérgio Conceição was the one doing the motivating from the bench. It would have been tremendously ironic that the team most opposed to the league format would lift the trophy at the end but it wasn’t to be. It will be interesting to see whether they can hold on to their two prized assets in Defour and Witsel during the summer. Likewise, scouts seem to swarming around the Cristal Arena too, with Genk’s stock rising. It was quite fitting that they wore shirts with ‘Mine for Talent’ on them.
Both clubs will be in the Champions League qualifying round, and if Genk keep their spine of their team, they could upset some European giants. That being said, they will be in the Champions side of the 3rd round so could face Rangers or Copenhagen for example. Standard Liege will be in the unseeded side and could face FC Twente, which would see Michel Preud’homme return to the club that he made his name at. Just merely draw speculation at the moment of course.
But what a season in Belgium – coincidently the first I’ve had the pleasure of watching. I’ve seen a player throw a duck off the field and recieve death threats. I’ve had trouble getting my head around 3 sets of playoffs. I’ve seen Charleroi sack umpteen number of managers and Wesley Sonck score an overhead kick in the snow. It’s been an experience, one which you can now follow on the Belgian Waffle – once I’ve sorted out a good logo. Watch this space.
Finally, congratulations to Genk fans. Deserved champions.