Belgian football: questions and answers

The new Belgian football league has already kicked off, only two weeks after the Brazil World Cup. Vice-champions Standard had the honour to play the opening game against Walloon challengers Charleroi, taking it 3-0. But which teams are the favourites to take the title, who could act as the dark horse? An answer to these and other questions can be found below.

KEY FEATURES

  • play-off system kept: it's all or nothing in spring
  • defending champions Anderlecht looking for 4th successive crown
  • Club Brugge desperate to end 10-year drought
  • AA Gent or Ostend as the dark horse?
  • Belgian league lost a major attraction as Golden Shoe Hazard left for Germany
  • Belgian starts weeks ahead of other competitions

Who has the best sprint?

Analysts expect defending champions Anderlecht and Club Brugge to battle it out for the title. Anderlecht snatched last season's trophy from Standard, that had been leading the competition for most of the time, thanks to a strong final sprint in the season-ending play-offs.

The controversial play-off system with the 6 best teams of the normal competition, was kept despite criticism that it is to the benefit of the team having the momentum in April and May. The extra competition generates more cash though, attracting bigger crowds and boosting TV rights.

Anderlecht can set a 50-year first

Standard collected most points during the league and the play-offs last season, but still did not become champions. This is because the points are being halved after the normal competition, to make the play-offs - a round-robin competition with the best 6 teams spread over 10 days of play - a tenser and closer battle.

A young Anderlecht couldn't convince during the regular season, but found their best form in money time and overtook their challengers in the play-offs to claim their third successive crown. Anderlecht aim for a fourth successive title, a feat that no team has managed since the sixties when the Anderlecht of football legend Paul Van Himst made it 5 in a row.

Youngsters will have to do it

Anderlecht have the youngest team in the top flight. Several key players left the club during the summer transfer window last year, and this summer saw a repeat of this.

Midfielder Cheikhou Kouyaté moved to West Ham, while experienced winger Guillaume Gillet and talented Massimo Bruno also left the club. Anderlecht General Manager Herman Van Holsbeeck has promised fans to attract some top players before the end of August. The Brussels team will have to, if they want to grab a new crown.

Anderlecht are counting on Serbian striker Aleksandr Mitrovic (dubbed Mitrogol by the fans) and Belgian youngsters such as Youri Tielemans and Dennis Praet.

Brugge to end 10-year drought?

The biggest challengers for the title seem to be FC Bruges. Coach Michel Preud'homme has been successful with each club he led so far, and has the advantage he has had the time to prepare things properly this time - last season, he only joined the club in September when the season had already started. The Bruges fans are really hungry for a title, after a 10-year drought. Analysts have their doubts though - can Preud'homme make the team swing?

Eden Hazard's brother to Germany

Five teams are expected to make Anderlecht and Club Brugge work hard for their money: Standard, Zulte Waregem, KRC Genk, Cup winners Sporting Lokeren and AA Gent, named by many as a possible dark horse in the title race.

Standard lost some key players and didn't do any major incoming transfers yet, although the 3-0 victory against Charleroi will serve as a confidence booster. Zulte Waregem lost Thorgan Hazard, who was on loan from Chelsea, to Borussia Mönchengladbach of Germany. Thorgan, the younger brother of Chelsea star Eden, was chosen as the best player in the Belgian league last January, when he was awarded the Golden Shoe.

AA Gent and Oostende to create the surprise?

AA Gent and KV Oostende are expected to become the revelations. Ambitious Ghent, that boast the most modern stadium in Belgium, experienced some teething problems in the first season after the new stadium was opened, the Ghelamco Arena, was finally finished, missing play-off 1 last season.

A new coach, Hein Vanhaezebrouck, should make sure this does happen again. He is determined to prove he can be successful with a top team, after a previous spell at KRC Genk did not work out. Ostend meanwhile bought some good, experienced players thanks to investor and business tycoon Mark Coucke.

Why the early start?

Westerlo and Moeskroen-Péruwelz are the two newcomers. They could be facing a hard battle against relegation, together with Lierse, Waasland-Beveren and Cercle Brugge.

The Belgian season kicked off last week, when champions Anderlecht beat Cup winners Lokeren to claim the Supercup trophy. The Belgian league starts this weekend and will see 30 days of play before the play-offs start early April. The Belgian competition starts 3 weeks ahead of the English Premier League, and even 4 weeks ahead of the Spanish Primera Division, but then again the Belgian league does not have so many international players that played the World Cup. The early start is needed to fit in the play-offs at the end of the season. The two competitions see 40 days of play together.

Anderlecht guaranteed Champions League spot

Anderlecht are automatically qualified for the Champions League, while Standard are facing a tough challenge from Greece's Panathinaikos in the last-but-one preliminary round.

Lokeren, Club Brugge and Zulte Waregem play the Europa League.