Pitchside Europe: Anderlecht to reclaim crown

Anderlecht set for title


Belgium's most successful club cruised to the title in 2010 before a late collapse 12 months ago saw them miss out on the league to Genk. The Brussels side had lost player of the year Mbark Boussoufa to nouveau riche Russians Anzhi Makhachkala during last season's run-in and also sold teenage sensation Romelu Lukaku to Chelsea last summer, but coach Ariël Jacobs replaced these players sensibly and Anderlecht end the regular season on top of the table.

This is the third campaign since the much-maligned playoff structure was introduced, with the format seeing the league split after 30 games and the top six going on to compete for the title over the final ten matches. If that sounds simple enough, then confusion comes in as clubs see their points tallies from the regular season halved after the split. That means Anderlecht's six-point lead over Club Brugge with one regular season game left to play is not as significant as it initially appears.

But the evidence from the campaign to date suggests Les Mauves will take some shifting from top spot.

They have often struggled on their travels this season, particularly against the smaller sides, but against their title rivals they have always been a step ahead, and they remain unbeaten at home. Jacobs' side crushed bitter rivals Standard Liège 5-0 at their Constant Vanden Stock stadium back in the autumn, and have also thumped Club Brugge, Genk and Cercle Brugge on home turf. Those results, along with away wins at Standard, Genk and Kortrijk, should give them the necessary confidence ahead of the run-in.

However, the biggest worry for Jacobs in the closing weeks of the season could be the fitness of star striker Matías Suárez. The Argentine has been outstanding, with 17 goals and 12 assists in all competitions. That form helped the 23-year-old win the Golden Shoe award for Belgium's best player in 2011 and he has recently been linked with moves to Marseille and Arsenal. But a nagging knee injury is giving major cause for concern, and Jacobs has admitted that an operation may be the only solution.

Despite that, there is enough quality throughout the side, with experienced Hungarian Roland Juhasz forming a mean central-defensive partnership with Cheikhou Kouyaté, a 22-year-old from Senegal who has been linked with big-spending Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester City. However, Kouyaté himself believes he will still be in Brussels next season. "I am not yet ready to play for a club like Manchester City, but I will be in a year or two," he said recently.

Scouts have also been keeping a close eye on Argentine international playmaker Lucas Biglia, while in front of him 20-year-old Brazilian Fernando Canesin is a great prospect. Belgian international Guillaume Gillet is the team's leading scorer with 12 league goals, and neither Milan Jovanovic nor Dieumerci Mbokani needed much time to settle after returning to the country following disappointing spells abroad.

Serbian winger Jovanovic starred at Standard and, after making little impression during a year at Liverpool, he was more than happy to come back to Belgium when Anderlecht came calling last summer. Mbokani, meanwhile, joined after disastrous spells at Monaco and Wolfsburg but has recovered the form he showed during his time at Standard and has weighed in with ten league goals.

But despite being the favourites to reclaim the title, there is still pressure on coach Jacobs. Critics were not impressed by his team's showing in the Europa League, when they bowed out to AZ Alkmaar in the last 32, and his four-and-a-half year spell in charge could come to an end this summer, with president Roger Vanden Stock believed to be keen to bring in former Belgium goalkeeper Michel Preud'homme.

"I don't care about my future. I am doing this job for the club, not for myself," Jacobs said recently. And if the 58-year-old is to leave then he will want to bow out on a high by reclaiming the league title and leaving them in next season's Champions League after a six-year absence from European football's top table. But if they do slip up in the coming weeks, then Club Brugge and third-placed Gent will hope to take full advantage.

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