Although it could be argued that a degree of momentum looks to be swinging across Belgium in an easterly direction (ie to Genk and Liège) as we approach the home straight of the Jupiler Pro League title race, it is easy to forget the current custodians of the trophy, namely Anderlecht. They have been victims of the cruellest of injustices against Partizan in the Champions League (if the authorities have nothing to hide, they’d have been using video for at least a decade) and been forced to let their crown jewel slip away to earn more roubles than you can shake a stick at when Mbark Boussoufa departed for Anzhi. And yet les Mauves et Blancs are fighting tooth and nail to maintain their status as the country’s number one team.
Although Anderlecht, as part of the G4 (with Club Brugge, KAA Gent and KRC Genk) were an advocate of the play-off system, it is they who stood most to lose. For such a system penalises consistency in the regular season and rewards teams who do just enough to be in contention. We have seen the same shambles in England’s premier domestic rugby union competition but at least they can boast a showpiece finale at the home of rugby Twickenham. Shorn of Boussoufa and less convincing than previously even before the departure of the Amsterdam-born winger, it appeared as if the purple and white empire was slowly crumbling.
The play-offs have had the desired effect, depending on your point of view, of ensuring that competitiveness fights back against pure merit but happily, the side who would be champions under a normal league system (reguliere competitie / phase classique) are not giving up their title without a fight. This is a club who feel they were robbed two years ago, felt that they righted a wrong last season and who are determined not to turn the criticism of the naysayers into a self-fulfilling prophecy. And in no figure does this determination manifest itself more strikingly than Ariël Jacobs.
Jacobs, who has been in his current post for three years after a short spell as assistant to Franky Vercauteren, was seen by some as coming to the end of his time as head coach. The team and the squad were stagnating, there was a failure to re-establish Anderlecht as a credible force on the continental stage and perhaps the former cup winner with La Louvière had run out of ideas. The name of current Lens and former Sporting CP and Standard Liège Bölöni László had been touted for next season, which given his role as a former adversary of Jacobs, would not have gone down too well.
Difficult questions were asked of Jacobs after he watched in horror as his team meekly surrended at home to a weakened Standard and crash to a deserved defeat in Brugge. They responded in style with a convincing win over Genk, who were not at the races (even if my earlier criticism was a touch harsh) and a controversy-ridden draw in Gent before tonight’s trip to Lokeren. The Oost-Vlaanderen side are seen as the sixth team in Play-Off 1 but full credit must be given to Peter Maes who has moulded the perennial strugglers into a useful outfit.
Lokeren would not be taken lightly by Paarswit and not just because any opponent has to be respected. Anderlecht had several personnel difficulties of their own: Juhász Roland was out with suspension, as was the American Sacha Kljestan while winger Jonathan Legear had broken down with an adductor injury. As part of a reshuffle, the fiery Marcin Wasilewski came in at right-back and Ablaye Seck, so error-prone against Standard, was consigned to the bench. True to form, the Pole was sent off for a professional foul when as the last defender, he hauled down Benji De Ceulaer inside the penalty box. Ablaye Seck, so error-prone against Standard, was consigned to the bench.
The mark of champions is how to respond in times of adversity and Silvio Proto made himself a hero as he dived to his left to parry away an admittedly disappointing spot kick from Ivan Leko. Nevertheless, it was a huge psychological moment and one could almost instantly see the confidence and belief restored to each Anderlecht player. And indeed, the visitors took the lead four minutes later. A terrific cross from Romelu Lukaku found Matias Suarez who headed home at the far post.
Playing with a man down is never easy at the best of times and with Lokeren’s talented frontline, it was going to be almost impossible to keep a clean sheet without the likes of Oliver Deschacht and Juhász marshalling the back four. And so it proved as De Ceulaer levelled the game up four mintues before the interval with a superb volley past Proto, who this time could not bail his team out.
Jacobs was now faced with a tactical quandary – whether to stick or twist. On one hand, Anderlecht could ill afford to lose ground on Genk and potentially Standard, who play tomorrow in Brugge. On the other hand, a point in a difficult away game with ten men and several first-teamers missing is not the worst result. As it happened, the RSCA coach sacrificed the hero of the Genk win, Dalibor Veselinovic, and brought on the young Czech midfielder Lukas Marecek.
The gamble paid off as Anderlecht produced an excellent display after the break, the crowning glory of which was what would turn out to be the winning goal. Suarez returned the earlier compliment as he played in Lukaku with a pierching through ball. The wonderkid outpaced the defender and although he lost his footing at the crucial moment, he still had the wherewithall to dink the ball over a stranded Copa into the net. It was no less than Lukaku himself, and the team, deserved and they duly went on to clinch the victory. Jacobs reflected upon the situation after the game talking to RTBF journalist Erik Libois:
“The only question that had to be asked when we were reduced to ten, with four purely attacking players on the field (Kanu, Suarez, Veselinovic and Lukaku), is: Do we change direction or do we, despite everything else, we stay as we are until half-time and then see how it pans out? During the last few minutes of the first half, the pressure became too great on our midfield and at that moment we had to take the option to consolidate. When you win, you are always correct. If we had lost, they would have asked me why I had taken Veselinovic off for Marecek. It is the eternal discussion.”
Just as in the Genk victory, Jacobs found the solution the situation demanded. Veselinovic may not have proven to be the Jan Koller-Ersatz extraordinaire but he was the right man for the Genk defence, whom he could bully with his height and strength (though to claim his best attributes are purely physical would be untrue). Horses for courses, as one might say in cricket. Jacobs again was able to discover the correct balance for his team. He could not do it alone – this is no one-man show. Proto, as discussed earlier, stepped up to the mark as did Suarez and in particular Lukaku. It is perhaps strange to describe a 17-year old player as undergoing a renaissance but in recent weeks, he looks more like the striker everyone raved about.
If Anderlecht go on to lift their 31st Belgian championship, it will be deserved from the point of view of their exploits in the regular season. Curiously, it may set the club back because it may well paper over the cracks that have begun to appear. The management may also decide of course that it is better to reform from a position of strength. Whatever the remaining five games of the play-offs hold in store for the Brussels side, they have displayed tremendous spirit in their Purple Hearts, which should earn them the admiration of all observers of Belgian football. Don’t dismiss them just quite yet.