KRC Genk – Champions of Belgium

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.

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Sporting Charleroi: A season of turmoil

Yesterday, after the long and protracted relegation saga, Charleroi were relegated to the 2nd tier of Belgian football after 26 years amongst the elite clubs. 

It was a bleak day in the history of the club. Several top Belgian players have plied their trade at Charleroi, notably Enzo Scifo, Philippe Albert whilst Daniel Van Buyten and Everton’s Marouane Fellaini both came through Charleroi’s youth system.

But memories of past glories and European qualfication have well and truly been eradicated this season. Everything that could have gone wrong this season did go wrong. If you were to compare this campaign to that of an English side, it would have to be Newcastle United 08/09. With the obvious comparisons of playing in the same colours, and having expectations that outstrip the actual quality of the side, there’s another glaring similarity to Newcastle. A megalomaniac chairman.

'Abbas, Proud of yourself?'

Abbas Bayat certainly courts controversy. The Iranian businessman took over the club in the middle of the last decade, and has instigated a slow decline ever since. Since Jacky Mathijssen left in 2007, the club has had 10 different managers including Scots John Collins and Tommy Craig, as well as former Hearts manager Csaba Laszlo who given the chop right at the end of this year. The maximum tenure being one full season if you’re lucky.

Just this season alone, Charleroi have had 5 different bosses – a ridiculous number. Even more ridiculous when you find out Charleroi changed boss after losing one playoff game. Still, to balance, Eupen sacked their boss and brought back Danny Ost, which proved to be a good move.

The season started terribly for Les Carolos. A win against Eupen on Matchday 2 was their only one in the Jupiler Pro League until February, making them a nailed on candidate for the relegation playoffs. Off the field, Bayat sacked his nephew Mogi, who was general manager at the club. Seemingly not face-to-face according to some reports.

With only one win to their name, Bayat scoured the European free agent market for players, adding 11 new players in January. According to my possibly inaccurate calculations, Charleroi have used around 40 players during the season, taking squad rotation to levels that only Rafa Benitez knows.

Only one newcomer has proved to be a great signing – Dudu Biton from Israeli club Hapoel Petah Tikva, who’s scored 5 goals in his 11 games at the club. That’s around 25% of the squad’s entire goals all season, possibly suggesting why Charleroi are at rock bottom.But from February onwards, Charleroi put up a little fight, picking up the odd win against fellow strugglers. But all in vain in the end.

Now, as many of you know who follow me on Twitter, I don’t like the Playoff system in Belgium. Actually it’s pretty complex and stupid, considering the fact that Standard Liege can win the league after a dire regular season being 16 points off the pace.

The relegation format is equally bamboozling. Five games between the bottom two, with Eupen getting a 3 point head-start, and an extra game at home. However, the football for the neutral has been breathtaking – with so much on the line, things get tense and inevitably players lost it. See Game No.3 – Eupen 4-2 Charleroi, which ultimately left Charleroi on the brink

Last night’s game was equally enthralling. Eupen went two up thanks to Macedonian Marko Obradovic’s brace minutes after coming on. The second was a fantastic looping long-ranger, which caused a Charleroi season-ticket holder to run onto the field, and the rest duly followed. The Charleroi ultras began to throw missiles onto the field and play was stopped. Not the first time that the fans have got into hot water, after the Walloon derby incident where tennis balls were thrown onto the pitch.

After a seven minute hold-up, the game restarted and Charleroi were invigorated, scoring twice through Kudemor and Biton deep, deep in injury time. By that I mean 13 minutes into injury time

Their valliance wasn’t enough. Charleroi were down. Eupen now face three playoff sides in D2 to see who earns the right to play in the Jupiler Pro League next season

Hooligans rioted outside with police, who deployed the water cannons. While their actions are wrong, you can understand the frustration of the faithful. A sad day for Charleroi. But who’s to blame?

If you were to ask former manager Jacky Mathijssen, it’s entirely down to the chairman. If you were to ask the fans – it’s entirely down to the chairman.

Charleroi 10/11 – a dummy’s guide for how not to run a football club. They’ll be back, but will it take the chairman to step down for that to occur?