The Madness of the Belgian Play-Off System
Play-off season began back in March for the elite sides such as Anderlecht, Genk, Club Brugge and Standard Liege, as all 16 sides compete for something in three separate mini-leagues!
The extraordinary system, composed of more than play-offs for the title, Europa League and relegation, keeps all of Belgium’s clubs entertained, giving them something to play for no matter what position they finish.
Take Beveren, for example – a side that won just seven times this season and escaped the relegation play-off by just two points – who have the chance to qualify for Europe!
Beveren may have missed their chance to play against the likes of Spurs or Liverpool next season as they squander near the bottom of their group, but 15th-placed Mouscron, a side in the bottom two until the 28th round of 30, are well placed to qualify.
The system can be a little flawed, with some teams missing out despite a decent finish in the regular season. However, this is more than made up for in the excitement it provides for the neutral!
Club Brugge, going well in the Europa League and winners of the Belgian Cup this year, currently lead the table, comprised of the league’s top six over the first 30 games of the season. These six teams then have their points totals halved to the nearest full number, although any teams that then see their points rounded up to level with another team has it rounded down.
This year Brugge entered the system as leaders with a two point advantage over Gent. They have maintained that lead after the first three games, with Anderlecht, Standard Liege, Kortrijk and Charleroi further behind.
The title guarantees qualification to the Champions League group stage, whilst second place have to make do with the third qualifying round. This is mirrored with the Europa League for the 3rd and 4th placed finishers, currently Pro League holders Anderlecht and Standard Liege. Fifth placed Kortrijk would enter a two-legged play-off, called Testmatches, with one side ranked from 7th to 14th, whereas the sixth placed side would miss out on everything all together! Charleroi and Genk finished level on points in 6th and 7th respectively, meaning the former faces a trickier feat in having to play the elite, but with a greater possible reward on offer.
Europa League play-off
Eight teams contest for the opportunity to go up against the fifth placed side for a place in next season’s Europa League. Prior to that, they must sidestep a group stage and a final play-off, then beat the fifth placed side in a Testmatch.
The eight teams are firstly split into two groups. Group A features those who finished in 7th, 9th, 12th and 14th; Genk, Mechelen, Zulte-Waregem and Beveren. Genk, who narrowly missed out on the Championship play-offs on goal difference, went into this league as Beveren’s equal, despite having amassed almost double the former’s points tally! Nevertheless, their superiority should shine through in the six games, home and away, with the top side progressing.
In Group B, 8th, 10th, 11th and 13th (Lokeren, Oostende, Westerlo and Mouscron respectively) are pitted together. After three games it is Lokeren who lead the table having beaten former leaders and 13th placed Mouscron 5-1 at their ground.
The winners of the two groups face each other in a two-legged final for the chance to win a spot in the Testmatch. Last season Oostende pipped Kortrijk on penalties to head into the Testmatch, but did not have a European license. As a result, the matches were annulled with Zulte-Waregem going into Europe without facing the drama!
The bottom two sides contest this mini-series, with the team that finished highest receiving a three-point boost. Lierse and Cercle Brugge are this season’s scrappers with the latter gaining three points to begin with. However, after three games the teams are level on six points each, and it is Lierse who top the table on goal difference.
Should they come out on top, Lierse will have to face three Belgian second-tier teams to try to stay in the division, meaning the winners of the league below may not win promotion at all. Last season Mouscron finished top after six games and came up, and are now in with the chance of reaching Europe!
It is a long route to the title, European competition, and even safety for next season in Belgium’s top tier, an unorthodox but exciting method in which every team has a shot at glory. If the Premier League ever introduced a system like this it would be carnage!