Tonight sees the top two in Belgium go head-t0-head with just two full rounds of the regular season to play. Neither side has tasted defeat in the league since November, remaining unbeaten for 30 matches between them. That one of the sides is Belgium’s biggest club and most crowned league champion Anderlecht is no surprise but that the other is Zulte Waregem, formed in 2001 and until a few years ago still semi-professional, is remarkable.
When Francky Dury’s men emerge from the Constant vanden Stock’s tunnel this evening, they do so in the knowledge that only a victory will keep alive any faint hopes of the merger club becoming the most surprising champions since Lierse in 1997. Since becoming a member of Belgium’s top flight, Zulte Waregem have displayed an admirable tendency to punch above their weight, with several top-half finishes. If they are to entertain upsetting the applecart in the forthcoming play-offs, they will have to achieve what they have not done before – a win away to Anderlecht.
In public, former policeman Dury is very much in tune with the footballing consensus – namely that Zulte Waregem are already doing well to be in second spot and that a place in Europe next season would represent a fine achievement given the resources the club has at its disposal (There are of course some in the media in whose interest it is to talk up a genuine title battle).
In private, it is a different story. Dury’s confidence has grown as the season has progressed and his team have lasted the pace. His all-Belgian backline has conceded just 25 goals all season, as few as Anderlecht (albeit Essevee have played one game less), his midfield has the right balance of steel (Malanda), energy (Delaplace) and craft (Berrier, Thorgan Hazard) and while they don’t possess a deadly hitman (Berrier is the top scorer with 12), they have others who can chip in here and there whilst conforming to Dury’s tactical demands.
Having been head coach before, Dury knows Zulte Waregem like the back of his hand and he is only too well aware of the sorry state the team was in when he returned in the middle of last season. His homecoming was accompanied by the returns of Berrier and Leye, who had a point to prove after an unsuccessful time at Standard. He is only too well aware of how a club can go through ups and downs- even Gent have not been immune to a major slump this season – and therefore he knows you have to strike while the iron is hot for it may cool rapidly come the summer.
Firstly, it is of course difficult or rather verging on impossible for overachieving clubs to keep hold of their best players. Secondly and more specifically in the context of the club, the futures of many first-choice players are in the balance. Goalkeeper Sammy Bossut has yet to be offered a new contract while midfielder Jonathan Delaplace is also out of contract and it is no coincidence that there are murmurings of a summer move to one of the big three. Chelsea are unlikely to give Thorgan Hazard another season in Belgium and Franck Berrier still harbours hopes of making it at a bigger club.
And then we come of course to the much discussed play-off system. Zulte Waregem are no stranger to PO1 and neither is Dury. The 55-year old has had one PO1 campaign with Zulte Waregem and a second with KAA Gent. Out of a possible 60 points, his teams took a mere eleven – all the more reason to try to build up as comfortable a buffer against Standard, Genk, Lokeren and Club Brugge as possible before the points are halved at the end of the regular season. Even if Zulte Waregem hold on for a European spot, it is not yet clear where they will fulfil their fixtures. Last time around they played in Gent but that option is now off the table.
Should Anderlecht, who will soon be able to welcome back former Golden Shoe winner Matias Suarez, waltz to the title unopposed, it will make a mockery of a play-off system in theory designed to increase excitement come the spring. It is not really in Anderlecht’s interest either. One refreshing aspect of Anderlecht’s games with Standard and Club Brugge was how the champions were seriously tested. They didn’t quite come through unscathed but nevertheless managed to avoid defeat despite finishing neither game with eleven men. It will stand the club in good stead for their almost inevitable return to the Champions League group stages.
Even the most optimistic neutral / anti-Anderlecht supporter will admit that the scale of the task facing Zulte Waregem tonight, which would be difficult enough with a full strength side, has become even more of an uphill struggle without suspended duo Mbaye Leye and Junior Malanda. Both deliberately picked up a fifth yellow card in order to serve their suspension against Charleroi last weekend but that game was, much to Essevee’s anger, postponed at the eleventh hour.
Anderlecht are without the suspended Bram Nuytinck while Sunday’s heroes Demy De Zeeuw and Samuel Armenteros are ineligible as they were not yet registered when this game was originally due to be played. On the other hand, Milan Jovanovic returns from suspension and he was good for two assists the last time the sides met back in September when it ended 3-2 in Anderlecht’s favour.
Sunday’s late comeback in Brugge leaves Anderlecht full of confidence and with a burning desire to put their closest challengers in their place – coach John van den Brom and captain Lucas Biglia are certainly taking Essevee seriously. That sounds ominous for the outsiders but then again, you sense that Dury loves it the most when he’s battling against the odds.