1 July ~ This year’s Jupiler League had more twists and turns than an Agatha Christie novel, books beloved by many Belgians. When the dust settled, Racing Genk emerged as champions by half a point: a suitable end to a chaotic, unbelievable and, finally, incredibly exciting season. Very few people outside of Belgium, and only a handful inside the country, fully understand the Jupiler League play-off system. In brief: the top six at the end of the "classic" season enter a mini-league called Playoffs-One (PO1); crucially, the six clubs start with just half of the points gained in the season proper.
The top three in the mini-league then qualify for Europe (Champions League and Europa League qualifiers). But there’s more. The teams that finish in positions seven to 14 ("classic" season) go into two groups of four (PO2). The top team in each group then play each other to determine who meets the team finishing fourth in PO1 with the prize being a Europa League place. Finally, the teams finishing 15th and 16th play each other five times. This is PO3 – a new feature in 2011 – to determine the relegation positions.
Anderlecht – supported by Genk, Ghent and Club Brugge, the so-called G4 – had engineered the system’s approval back in 2009. The motivation was more games between "big" clubs, more cash from TV and gate receipts and suspense (in theory) until the end of the season. That had not worked in 2009-10 but this time it did pay off. There was a hiccup in December 2010, when the Jupiler League’s 16 clubs met and voted to return to the classic championship with 18 teams and no play-offs. But no – intensive lobbying took place and several Anderlecht players were loaned to smaller clubs; media rumours were rife that these were sweeteners to get the votes changed. At one stage, the G4 even agreed to relegation being decided on the basis of the last three years’ results – but that was finally and thankfully rejected.
A few days later, the decision to go back to 18 clubs was reversed and for the next three seasons, it will be status quo, even to the extent of the points being halved ahead of the PO1 play-offs. Anderlecht agreed to that, perhaps because they thought they would win the league regardless of the format. There was something for everyone: a typical compromis à la belge / Belgisch compromis.
The regular season finished with Anderlecht on top (65 points), one point ahead of Racing Genk and a full 16 points ahead of Standard Liege. Then the play-offs kicked in. Standard scraped into the top six on the last day, thereby immediately cutting the gap with Anderlecht to eight points. Anderlecht proceeded to sell Mbark Boussoufa (responsible for half of their goals) to Anzhi Makhachkala in Dagestan for lots of roubles, which proved to be an error. Leading up to the final day of the season, Standard – motivated by Jelle van Damme returning from an unhappy spell at Wolves – had taken a remarkable 25 points from nine games compared to Genk’s 18 and a Boussoufa-less Anderlecht’s 11. Standard and Genk now had 50 points and Anderlecht just 44; the mighty had fallen.
The final game was, as the scriptwriters wanted, between Racing Genk and Standard at Genk’s Cristal Arena. In a pulsating atmosphere, Standard took the lead, then their winger Mehdi Carcela was caught full in the face by Liverpool’s on-loan Chris Mavinga (broken nose and multiple fractures). Genk equalised late on through substitute Kennedy Nwanganga and took the point they needed. Standard perhaps deserved more on the night but over the season, Genk, a young side with Kevin de Bruyne in the engine room, were worthy champions. It was sweet revenge for Genk coach Franky Vercauteren who was sacked by Anderlecht after they had promised him a job for life.
And the victory by half a point! That’s because those who have been following carefully will understand that Standard Liege had been given half a point when their 49 points had been halved to 25, so they had (genuinely) 49.5 points as opposed to Genk’s 50. Hence a draw was enough to give Vercauteren’s men the title. An absolutely perfect finish to a surreal season. Magritte would have been proud. John Chapman