In the wake of last night’s 3-0 victory over 10-man Lokeren, Standard Liège coach Dominique D’Onofrio felt that “perhaps Standard will be the surprise” but insisted that the Coupe de Belgique/Beker van België final against Cercle Brugge remained the number one priority before settling down for a beer or two. Striker Mbaye Leye was quietly confident of the team’s title chances so long as they kept their concentration, continued along the same path and not let the recent successes go to their heads. He did agree with the premise of one question posed to him by the RTBF interviewer that the fans will not accept anything less than first place.
Winger Mehdi Carcela-Gonzalez, who opened the scoring with a stunning free-kick, echoed the sentiments of Leye and insisted that his focus is only on the next game :
“We won absolutely nothing yet. Our feet remain firmly planted on the ground. With this (play-off) system it can change very quickly. Believe me, I am really not thinking about the title. I am thinking about the next game away to Club and how we can win there.”
And yet you could not blame him for glancing further ahead. For a while it looked as if Les Rouches were going to endure a frustrating evening against a determined Lokeren side. Their coach Peter Maes readily accepts that they have no hope of winning the title but he hopes that the Oost-Vlamingen can play a decisive role in who does become champion. And they were in a determined mood frustrating the home side for the opening half-hour. The turning point came after 31 minutes when Joel Tshimanga was sent off for what was deemed a professional foul on Aloys Nong. A yellow card would have sufficed as the ball was heading away from the goal even if Nong may well have got there and been able to shoot. One could therefore argue that a modicum of justice was serviced when Meme Tchité’s penalty grazed the top of the crossbar after he tried to surprise Lokeren goalkeeper Boubacar Copa with a brief Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink-esque run-up.
It took the introduction off the bench of former Zulte Waregem and KAA Gent hitman Mbaye Leye to put the match to bed, for Lokeren stubbornly refused to give in despite their numerical disadvantage. Carcela followed his free-kick in first-half stoppage time up with the corner, from which Leye poked home at the back stick on 83, three minutes after coming on. Leye then added a third with a terrific header into the far corner although in fairness, the delivery from Jelle van Damme was not half bad either.
In van Damme and Pocognoli, Standard have a superb left-hand side of the pitch. Van Damme, whose spell with Wolves did not work out as he would have liked, has proven to be a real steal for Standard and his experience and leadership are as appreciated at Sclessin as they are dearly missed in Brussels. Les Rouches have now won six games on the bounce and as Leye acknowledged after the game, have strength in depth with a lot of players who can come in and do a job.
The fans have reason to believe that Standard can pull off one of the great title comebacks. These are the same fans who have given the team steadfast support and with whom Standard’s talismanic but injured captain Steven Defour celebrated in the Spion Kop after the Lokeren win. Monday’s clash in Brugge will be of paramount importance. D’Onofrio’s men can kill two birds with one stone – they can knock Blauw-Zwart out of real contention with three points and strengthen their own chances immeasurably.
Right now, Standard have all the momentum and look like an irrepressible force but the players and coach are right to be cautious, having experienced the thin end of the wedge in the early part of the season. Should they emerge as national champions, having scraped into the top six play-offs, there will be those who will cry injustice. They may have a point, as Anderlecht did two years ago, but there would be no denying the ability of Standard to turn it on when it really counts. And that perhaps is what really should be the mark of champions.