Mechelen v Sporting Charleroi
After a week off following the end of a fantastic season in the Pro League, we head to Mechelen for the first game of the play-offs. The top-4 and the teams in 5th-8th now split off from the rest of the league, and each other, and play a round robin set of home and away fixtures to determine the title and who will claim the European places.
The second play-off group looked to be an uphill battle for the three sides besides Gent to claim a chance to play for a spot in the Conference League next season, with the side in 5th looking a cut above the rest and arriving with a four-point lead, but their Belgian Cup win last weekend ensures they will play Europa League football, and thus the Conference League spot will be claimed by the best performers of Mechelen, Charleroi or Genk.
Hosts Mechelen will be hopeful of getting off to a great start in this first tie, with visitors Charleroi only 1 point ahead, and with an excellent home record through the regular season. De Kakkers last fell to a home defeat all the way back in January, and have only lost three times at home all season long.
They did fall to a 2-0 defeat in their final game of the regular season, but a 2-0 away defeat to the league’s most in-form side Club Brugge who are attempting to retain their title is par for the course even for the better sides in Belgium. Prior to this they were six games unbeaten, and had not failed to score since January 23rd, a run of 10 straight Pro League games.
Visitors Charleroi may start this play-off campaign with a 1 point advantage, but they will not be relishing the prospect of 6 ties against the sides around them in the division. In their 14 games against sides also in the top-8 this season, the Zebras lost 9, and won only twice (both of these wins came in August and September last year). On the road the picture is even more bleak, with 5 defeats from 7 games. In these 5 games, they failed to score on 4 occasions.
If they are to stand any chance of progressing to European football next year they must learn to compete against the sides around them or they will be out of contention very quickly. Two defeats in a row and they could be 5 points behind both of their rivals with just 12 points left to play for.
Mechelen must be favourites for this one, with their strong home record and the poor performances of Charleroi against the sides now entering the play-offs. Charleroi have not beaten a top-8 side in over 7 months now, and I would be surprised to see this change.
Club Brugge v Royal Antwerp
The first of two mid-afternoon games takes us to Bruges, where reigning champions Club Brugge kick off their play-off campaign by hosting fourth-placed Antwerp. They are the form side in the Pro League right now, winning all of their last 8 games in a row to close the gap to a stumbling Union Saint-Gilloise. They enter the play-offs just 3 points behind the side from Brussels, and despite the deficit, they look a solid bet to retain their crown.
Having won these previous 8 by an aggregate score of 27-5, and beating today’s opponents Antwerp 4-1 at home in late February, Club Brugge have recaptured the form that made them champions last season, showing the class that allowed them to hold their own against PSG and RB Leipzig in the Champions League earlier this season.
They had been more than 10 points behind the leaders before their winning run, but had closed that gap to 5 by the final game of the season, and would have been just 2 points behind the league leaders had crowd trouble from the Beerschot fans not caused their final game to be abandoned at 0-0 in the 87th minute and the tie to ultimately be awarded to Union as a 5-0 win.
On this 8-game winning run they have won by at least a two goal margin in all 8 games, and this is even more impressive as it has not been an easy run-in, with the reigning champions having to beat 4 sides who are also taking part in the end-of-season play-offs. With such an impressive record it is hard to look past them in this tie.
Visitors Antwerp have struggled for form of late, having dropped from 2nd in the division to 4th, and almost out of the first play-off group entirely in the last two months of the season. They are missing centre-back Bjorn Engels enormously, having conceded 10 goals in 7 games since he suffered a hamstring injury. In their previous 7 games with him in the side Antwerp had conceded just 5 goals.
With three defeats in their last 7 Pro League fixtures, all coming against sides also featuring in the play-offs, Antwerp look to be in the worst shape of any top-4 side, and will be dreading the prospect of a trip to the Jan Breydel Stadion to face a Brugge side who have dominated all challengers in recent weeks.
Anything other than a comfortable win for the hosts would be a big surprise here. They have found the net eight times in their last 3 fixtures, whereas Antwerp have scored just three times in the same timeframe, despite all of their three games coming against bottom-half opposition. Both clubs are moving in opposite directions, and Brugge look a good bet to keep their momentum going following the two week break.
Gent v Genk
The second 3pm tie is the other game in the second tier of Pro League play-offs, and has the potential to be heavily impacted by a quirk of the qualification system the division employs. The top team in the second play-off group wins the opportunity to advance to a play-off game against the fourth-placed side in the first play-off group. The winner of this tie is awarded a place in the Conference League qualifying rounds. However, hosts Genk won the Belgian Cup last weekend, which guarantees them a spot in the Europa League qualifiers.
Essentially then, Genk have nothing to gain in this play-off round, and it will be fascinating to see how they approach these six games. They arrive in this tie having played 120 minutes on Easter Monday, and though this may have been an advantage with the other sides having a week out, and perhaps lacking match sharpness as a result, it seems likely they may choose to play a weakened side this time out.
Even if the hosts do play a weakened side, they have seen consistently low-scoring ties throughout their season, allowing the second-fewest goals of any Pro League side in their 34 regular season games. They have allowed less than a goal per game, 30 in 34 (0.88 per 90), with only league leading Union besting this tally.
With deep runs in both the Belgian Cup and Conference League ongoing throughout the season, Genk have proven they have a deeper squad than most sides in the division, so even if they do not always play their strongest side they should still pose a threat to any opposition, and the drop-off in quality is unlikely to be huge.
Visitors Genk meanwhile have not struggled for goals at either end of the pitch, conceding more than any other top-half side bar Mechelen, whilst scoring 66 times in 34 games. They may struggle in this game however, with Japanese international Junya Ito sidelined by a one game suspension for accumulating 5 yellow cards. The right-winger had scored in each of his previous 3 games, whilst also chipping in with 2 assists to ensure Genk qualified for the post-season under a strong challenge from rivals Sint-Truiden.
The hosts have kept clean sheets in 3 of their last 4 home games, and also in the Belgian Cup final last weekend, whilst visitors Genk have won just one of their last 6 away games, scoring more than once just twice in the process, with one of those games being against a Seraing side already condemned to a relegation play-off by the time Genk hosted them.
The only issue (and the reason this fixture is only a 3-star selection) remains just how seriously Gent will take this fixture, something we will not know until the teams are out at 2pm on Saturday, but if they put out even a reasonably strong team they will likely frustrate a Genk side lacking their main creative spark in Ito.
Union St-Gilloise v Anderlecht
The final game of the weekend in the Pro League sees league leaders Union hosting third-placed Anderlecht. The visitors arrive on the back of a disappointing penalty shoot-out loss to Gent in the Belgian Cup final, and though they did have chances to win the game themselves, in all honesty they were a little fortunate to have stayed in the game long enough to force penalties, with Gent spurning a number of great chances.
The exertions of the tie may have taken a toll on the squad, but they do arrive with a week’s rest and with the squad still fully match-fit. Union meanwhile have not played in two weeks, which may be a blessing but could also mean players needing some time to get back up to speed.
The hosts are perhaps fortunate to have a 3-point cushion over Club Brugge after seeing their final game of the season being abandoned thanks to crowd trouble caused by the visiting Beerschot fans. With the game drifting, 0-0 in the 87th minute, and Union heading towards a fourth-straight home game without a win, the game was abandoned and the home side subsequently awarded a 5-0 victory.
A win here is crucial for both sides, with Anderlecht already 7 points behind Union before this game starts, and Club Brugge hosting an out-of-sorts Antwerp side earlier in the day and seeming likely to move level with the hosts. Union meanwhile need to retain their advantage as much as possible, as Club Brugge have the experience of winning titles, and arrive in the play-offs in a fantastic vein of form.
The hosts have scored 11 goals in their last 5 Pro League games (excluding the abandoned Beerschot game), whilst Anderlecht have found the net on 12 occasions in their previous 5 league fixtures. Union are the league’s high scorers, with 78 goals in 34 games, and having failed to score in just 4 of 17 home games this season. The visitors sit just behind in second-place with 72 goals in 34 games, failing to score only 5 times in 17 away fixtures.
Both sides have scored in 4 of Anderlecht’s 6 ties against fellow top-4 opposition. They have conceded in all 6 of these games, showcasing the defensive frailties that have kept them arms-length from the top of the table throughout the regular season.
Union have kept up an impressive defensive record so far this season, but have conceded in 4 of their last 5 Pro League games, and with a significant number of dropped points in their run-in, they are clearly struggling with the pressure of being title challengers. It seems unlikely that this will change now they are facing exclusively the best sides in the division, with the main question now being can their attack outscore the goals being allowed by their defence?
Written by an Andy verified content writer
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