Posted in Matches in Brief

It’s getting tight

Before I start, and I apologise for this, I am on the coach to Brighton to see the worst club in London play, and I am surrounded by a bunch of ITK c*nts. Fill in the blank. Telling us Ancelotti will be taking over…anyway. One big extravaganza day of JPL action where it whittled down who may be getting sixth. What it also did was secure Lokeren’s status in the top flight.

What may have been a shock is the Club Brugge and Anderlecht results because they both won. Blauw-Zwart won their first match in a fair while and Anderlecht tried their best (again) to nearly blow it. What if Harbaoui could play? Could’ve been a different story. Kortrijk had a major blow by not hanging on for a point. Because of goal difference, if Standard and Antwerp lose next weekend and Kortrijk draw, they’d go into sixth, but the two point deficit means nothing short of a win will do.

That is feasible though. Charleroi have been awful and a 0-0 against Sint-Truiden is uninspiring. Les Zébres could’ve gone fourth if Gent had won, showing how far they’ve fallen mentally, and maybe physically. The winter break has really ruined the top three momentum, especially Charleroi. STVV finally ran their race and are now in 9th from 6th, I’ve always said the cream rises to the top. Not saying De Kanaries aren’t decent, but more Gent, Genk and Standard are better.

The league is taking shape in the way I felt it would in pre season. Rather ‘hook or by crook’ but it is showing signs of competition going into the playoffs. Not that anyone will overtake Club Brugge, or rather, they shouldn’t, but going into next season, there could be a challenge. And along the way, with this Kortrijk surge, Zulte Waregem will go again, can Beveren build? It makes the league stronger and better.

Genk basically cemented their top six spot with a fine win at the Freethiel. A goal is all it takes and Phillipe Clement has done a good job, not only bringing in confidence, but fifth in the league and a cup final. Huge for De Smurfen. Standard likewise who are almost in an identical position. Scoring goals for fun at home, they made it tough against a battling Mechelen side.

I tweeted this yesterday. How can you score two away at Anderlecht, Gent and Standard Liege and not win? Not good enough frankly. And whereas as Mechelen are looking down, Lokeren are looking up. Saving themselves, as I predicted, with a fine 2-1 away victory. It’s fair that Mouscron have down tools, even though they’ve looked promising under Defays, but another loss. This season was a flash in the pan in the end.

Oostende pulled off the result of the day, regardless of how they achieved it. Another win, nearly blowing it and then snatching it using every trick in the book. Is it a case of bad tactics to win at all costs, or should Gent be better and should’ve dealt with this? There’s more than one way to skin a rabbit. Same goes for winning a football match. De Kustboys used savvy by the sounds of it and won.

At the Bosuilstadion, without forgetting, Antwerp blew Eupen away with a 2-0 win, and put themselves right back in with a top six shout. The Great Old have been poor this year and may sneak it at the line. But Anderlecht away next weekend is difficult. Eupen have to beat Mouscron. Nothing less. But if Beveren take their foot off the gas, a big win is needed for the Pandas, otherwise their brief stay will come to an end in the Pro League!

Posted in Player Profile

Player Profile: Peter Olayinka

On a day where a lot can happen, places can be secured amongst other things, when I was thinking about who I could write about, I thought ‘why not look at the biggest match on paper on the penultimate weekend?’ Like I’ve said, other matches could potentially be more important, although sixth still isn’t impossible mathematically for Zulte Waregem, but against Anderlecht, we do have two of the biggest clubs in the land facing each other.

Peter Olayinka, for my money, has had a decent season. Going by his goal to game ratio, he is netting a goal every three matches and is just as good with assisting too. Operating predominantly as a centre forward, he is adaptable out on either flank, proving better for the Nigerian as he has scored most goals from the wing.

The club had a bad time of it this season, especially the back end of last year, and Peter missed a few games through injury where the club failed to score in two and didn’t win in those five, drawing one and losing by the odd goal in three! If Olayinka kept up his goal scoring form of one in three, he could well have grabbed a couple of goals in those matches, or assisted? Proving how key he can be to Essevee. He is so vital to Francky Dury that he tends to complete every match that he starts, probably down to his quality and endeavour.

On the negative side, he did get that red card in the 4-0 defeat to Charleroi in December, which was reduced to a two match suspension. Of course you shouldn’t lack discipline, but the rut that the club were in, the players must’ve been venting their frustration. Other than that, he’s hardly a dirty player. With those two matches on the sideline, the club picked up two big wins with Hamdi Harbaoui settling in nicely. However, the Tunisian can’t play today due to suspension, meaning Olayinka could step up!

With the young attacker on loan from Gent, he could do two clubs one favour in the same match. A defeat for Les Mauves could give Gent the chance to go third, and in the process, if results go Essevee’s way, they could go ninth and just two points off of sixth. Obviously the second part there isn’t as likely, but as I keep repeating, it’s just not impossible. With a good run individually for the Nigerian, could he get into the World Cup squad? Maybe unlikely now, but with the Onyekuru injury, and some luck, then why not?

Posted in Matches in Brief

Stuck in the middle with you

As we head into the penultimate match of the season, fifth and sixth still aren’t certainties for a number of clubs. Mathematically, eight clubs can still finish sixth. The likelihood is that it’s probably not going to be Zulte Waregem, and especially not Oostende, but it isn’t 100% impossible. At the top end, Genk need to just win and they’ve basically guaranteed their top six place.

It’s fascinating because only two of these matches actually include the chasing pack. I’ve added Oostende in this (obviously). They’re all kept apart from each other, playing the relegation battlers or top three. I predicted Antwerp and Beveren getting into the top six about a month ago. It’s still possible, but now seems unlikely.

No one has easy games to end their regular season. Kortrijk and STVV both have Club Brugge and Charleroi. Beveren have Genk, which they’ll be desperate to win because of Clement and Seck going to the Luminus Arena. Antwerp have Eupen and Anderlecht where both will be fighting. I have already done my predictions for this weekend and I haven’t got Genk winning, meaning nearly everyone will stand a chance, except for Oostende and Zulte Waregem.

It’s so tough to call because every week there is a shock result. The top three have proved that, with four wins out of twenty one matches combined! It’s just a case of doing your job properly and staying focused, calm and collected. I’ve got a new two teams in my head for who’ll finish in fifth and sixth, Being Genk and…Standard Liège. It’s easier saying that now but not guaranteed.

I love how the final two round of matches are played at the same time to create tension and suspense. Maybe I’m overplaying it, but I want some excitement going into the last day other than who’ll get relegated? The worry is if the weather cancels any fixtures or delays any kick offs.

Posted in Matches in Brief

Who’ll be frozen out?

With this ‘Beast from the East’ sweeping Europe, especially here in England, I wonder who out of Mechelen, Eupen and now Lokeren may well lose their top flight status? A long, arduous and unpredictable season has drawn us in at both ends. Actually, it’s more the middle section that’s entranced us. But with nothing set in stone just yet, with two match days to go, who’ll be the unlucky one to go?

I never envisaged Lokeren getting themselves into this situation. I gave them a ‘B’ grade after actually not doing too bad in the first twenty one matches this season. This mini collapse of hardly any points and atrocious home form has seen them fall into this mess. Maybe I’m being too harsh, but a draw would’ve made them safe against Eupen. Now they need a win to make certain of safety. With Mouscron away next, I wouldn’t be surprised if they beat them because the Tricolores are better away. But with Zulte Waregem up last, at home too, nothings settled yet!

The Pandas have shown real grit and determination. If I went through the entire season, and every club could say this, what if Eupen held on against Club Brugge? What if they drew away at Standard? Held on away at Zulte Waregem? They’d already be safe. And in two of these matches they were 2-0 up!!! With a fighting chance, Eupen have Antwerp away who have dropped like a stone themselves, and like Lokeren, they have Mouscron too, but at home. I can’t even predict what will happen because I’ve gotten so much wrong in this crazy season, but on paper and with form, I wouldn’t be surprised if Eupen picked up six points!

The surprise of the season, for all the wrong reasons. De Kakkers have had a disastrous time. A campaign to forget. A team with great history and a current squad who are actually really good. Jesus, they have €12million rated teenager up front. There’s definitely quality amongst them. It’s just too late for Dennis Van Wijk who has at least given them a fighting chance. Much like Eupen, ifs and buts at Anderlecht and Gent recently. With Standard away next, I would say I can only see a home win, but like I’ve already mentioned, the took points from Anderlecht and Gent away. I guess with Beveren up last, who knows what can happen there? Unbelievable turn of events in the race for safety!

I predicted who’d finish in the top six, and I am unbelievably wrong right now, so my word isn’t gospel, but with the run in, in my opinion, I can see…Mechelen going down. Of course it’s just opinion. But there’s not enough confidence right now. Look at that Mats Rits penalty. I’m sure there’ll still be twists and turns in the final couple of matches, but performances need to be turned into points and fast!

Posted in Player Interview

Player Interview: Juan Pablo Torres

What a treat for me. Two interviews in two weeks with two young prospects in the Jupiler Pro League! This time around it was with young American talent Juan Pablo Torres. The 18 year old took time out after training to give me a call and talk about life, Lokeren, the US National team amongst other things.

Hey Juan Pablo. You’ve been in Belgium for basically a full regular season. What’s your opinion of Belgian football?

I think it’s a very high level. It’s a very physical game. You need to know what you need to do quickly when you get the ball because as soon as you receive it, you don’t get the time to think, so you have to play very, very fast and keep up with the physical side of the game. But I feel I’m still learning as the season’s going on. But yeah, I’d say it’s a very high level.

Did you know much about the Pro League?

I knew just a little bit about it. I knew the big teams like Gent, Genk and Club Brugge, but in my first season here I’ve learned a lot about it and all the players who play for different clubs and the history of all the clubs. So yeah, I’ve known a bit but I’ve definitely learned a lot now that I’m playing here.

I saw that you said you’ve played in Europe a lot with the US youth teams, but how did the move to Lokeren actually come about?

My agent told me about an opportunity at Sporting Lokeren and said that I can come and train with the team. So I came and started with the u19’s, trained there and then worked my way up to the first team. I was able to play well during the month I was at the club so that’s how the opportunity came about.

I saw you had trials at Sevilla and Schalke in the past. How was that experience?

That was really huge for me because when I was at Schalke, I was pretty young. About 14-15. That experience was pretty eye opening for me. You know, it was my first time seeing European football and I saw how competitive it was at an early age and how good the kids were. I knew that when I went back home, I had to work ten times harder than what the kids in the United States were working because what I was doing originally wasn’t good enough. At Schalke I saw that immediately so when I went home I made sure I was working harder so that when I went back to Europe, I knew what level I had to train at to try and get a contract. I’d be better prepared.

Were there many other clubs interested in you?

I knew there had been talks with other teams, but what I was really happy about with Lokeren is in the beginning, I’d be training with the first team and getting football right away. I felt that was really important and that it’d be a huge step for me in my career. So when the opportunity with Lokeren arrived I knew I wanted to take it. I liked the environment, I liked that when I was there I enjoyed my time. It felt like a good move for me and for my family as well so for me, Lokeren was an easy choice.

So early in your football career, Rúnar Kristinsson was sacked and Peter Maes came in. Did it show you how cut throat football can be?

Yeah definitely, definitely. It really showed me that this is a business and that you can’t get too comfortable. Whether that’s with the coach or when you’re selected you have to keep fighting for a spot because you never know what things will happen in the future. That definitely put things into perspective of how things can be and that I’ll always have to be sharp and ready for whatever happens.

Peter Maes is loved at the club, especially because of the cup wins. What’s he like to work under as a coach?

He is a very demanding coach. He tells the players what he wants and you have to do it. You have to work really hard with him and do your job. That’s one of the most important things and be part of a team. He obviously gave me my first start and I’m very grateful for that. You have to continue and keep pushing so that he can look at you and want to use you and want to put you in the team.

To put you in against Gent for your first start, was that a bit of a baptism of fire? How daunting was that for you?

To be honest I was pretty calm. I knew it was a big game and I knew how good a team Gent are and their history. I had a lot of respect for them but I just didn’t want to think about it too much and just play my game and focus on what I had to do to help the team as best as possible. My family was actually there when I had my first start so that really helped me a lot knowing they were there, that they were in the crowd watching. That really eased things for me. Of course I had butterflies. I was a bit nervous because it’s all new to you and I’d never experienced it before. I knew that with me working really hard that the day would come and that I had to take the chance.

Unfortunately for the club, relegation is a possibility. How’s the confidence within the team?

It’s an unfortunate situation that we find ourselves in. We have to move on and get ourselves prepared for the next game. The thing is everything’s in our hands and that’s really important. You never rely on other teams to do you a favour so that you’re secure in the league. It’s in our hands and I think that’ll bring calmness because we know what we have to do and we’ll prepare like always in every game. I think everything will be alright.

Your home form has been pretty poor all season. Why has the team been so good away?

I’m not sure. Its disappointing because at home you always want to be strong. You always want to play well, especially in front of your home fans. It’s a good question. It’s something we’ve noticed as a team, to get better at home. I think it’s important for a home game to be strong and that teams don’t want to come to your ground and to have that sense of pride when you’re playing at home. It’s something we need to work on and we’ll continue to.

I watched the Mechelen 0-2 Lokeren match and it was interesting because the team got the result in a professional manner. Clinical in attack and strong defensively. Is that what Peter Maes is trying to get across to the players in away matches?

We know there’ll be games where we’ll have to be solid. To be defensively tight between the lines and especially against teams who have the ball more. At the same time though, we have to also play when we have the ball and keep it. In training we do a lot of possession drills and keeping the ball, being able to play. So if we go into a game knowing we have to be strong defensively, it’s not necessarily that that’s all we’re thinking about. We still try to create attacking plays and still make chances.

Since you’ve been in Belgium, who has helped you settle the most?

All of us young guys in the team are all close. We’re always talking in the locker room. I always look up to the older guys that have played for a long time in their career because now that I’ve seen what they do day to day, I know how much of a grind it is, how difficult it is, so obviously when you see a guy who’s been playing for ten years or however long, you know they’ve been doing something right and that they know what they’re doing. I try to look to that and use that as someone to learn from.

There are a couple of Americans in the Pro League and Erik Palmer-Brown came over recently too. Have you reached out to them or vice versa?

With Erik and the national team, he was in the older age group so I don’t know him that personally. But when I saw that he’d come to Belgium it was obviously a good thing and I wish him nothing but the best. Maybe if we ran into each other, it’s always nice to see an American guy because he comes from where you come from, so that’s always nice to have. But I also have close friends in nearby countries, that play in Germany as well. We always keep in touch because even if it’s not the same league, we’re all going through the same thing. We always keep in touch.

Yeah because when I was looking this up, there was a lengthy list of Americans that especially play in Germany. There’s loads!

But back to this season. Individually, you haven’t had a lot of playing time. Is that because of the clubs circumstances right now or have you been told you’ll get more time in the Playoffs if you stay up?

I know that the start was good for me and there were great experiences being able to play. I take it every week, working hard in training and if the coach selects you, I know I’ll have to be ready. I know there are things I need to work on and to improve on. I always try to get better and maybe that’s the reason I’m not getting selected so I just have to stay calm, continue to work hard and just wait for the next opportunity that comes.

Is therea big difference in facilities between Lokeren and back in Georgia?

Yeah of course. Back in the United States I never played for a professional team in a professional environment. It was an academy near where I lived. We maybe trained three or four times a week and maybe in different soccer facilities around the city. Obviously that’s different to now where everyday we go to the club. Same pitch. When I was younger I had to get into going to the gym and eating right on my own because we didn’t necessarily have the people for that. Making sure I take care of myself on and off the field. What I’m eating, what I’m drinking, when I’m sleeping and all those other aspects that are important to the game.

How quickly is football growing in America amongst the other sports?

I think it’s growing at a rapid pace. When you think of the United States you think of the top sports. You think of American football, basketball and those kind of things. But football in America is something people are playing. You know when you see little kids the first sport they’re playing is football, which I think is great. Like you said, the league (MLS) has a lot of money and they’re looking to invest in big, nice stadiums, attracting big crowds and it’s working. A team like Atlanta United, the city where I’m from, the fans that they generate and the passion they have for the game, the football that they play, it’s all very, very good, so it’s growing at a really good pace and hopefully it’ll continue for years to come.

In your opinion, how long will it be before USA produces a Ballon d’Or winner? Mainly due to the population and facilities that the United States have and can build?

(After a brief chuckle by Juan Pablo) Yeah one day I think ‘why not?’ but there are so many aspects that go into that. For me, one of the biggest problems in the United States is the level of training. Speaking from my perspective, from where I was playing, it was too weak. Not sounding in an American way at all, the kind of trends that you had and the guys you were going up against. It wasn’t pushing you too much to the highest level you can be pushed. When I jumped over here you learn that very quickly, it’s a lot more competitive. The kids here in Europe see from such a young age that it’s competitive and see how good you have to be so they kind of have that advantage. They have that edge compared to say the young American kid that’s playing football. But yeah, an American winning the Ballon d’Or, why not. There are young American players right now who are very strong and you look at the likes of Christian Pulisic at Borussia Dortmund, Weston McKennie at Schalke. Now you have a lot of young American players who are making it in Europe.

Without going too far ahead, do you hope to maybe play in another country one day, or going back to America and playing in the MLS?

I sometimes think about that kind of stuff. For me it’s just to see where football takes you. Obviously you want to do well and progress your career. You want to take the next step. The harder step. But right now I want to do well at Lokeren in Belgium. As far as playing back home in the US, that’s always something I think about. It’d be nice to play in the country where you grew up, where all your family is…but for now it’s about focusing on Lokeren and focusing on doing the job here. If I keep thinking about the future without doing well in the present then all of this would be for nothing.

Which team did you support growing up?

Yeah I was a really big Barcelona fan. I shouldn’t say was, I still am. I enjoy watching them a lot. I grew up watching Xavi, Iniesta and Busquets and how they dominated teams with the way that they played. I’d watch a game and then I’d train and try and replicate what they were doing. You know obviously these guys are world class so it’s not easy. But yeah, Barcelona is definitely a team I supported a lot.

Without being blessed with too much height, do you look at players like N’golo Kante or SantiCazorla who play in possibly the hardest league in the world and see how they cope?

I try to always watch the best in the world and see what they’re doing. See how good they are and how they do certain things. I think the defensive midfield position is in a new era where a lot of them aren’t exactly ‘killers’ anymore but on the ball they’re very creative and the ones who can start the attack whilst they can do the dirty work, they have that asset. You look at Kante and see how he can pick up passes and how he reads the game. Can press forward and immediately being able to nick the ball. His like a mosquito always flying around. You want to swat him away but his always there. I always look at Sergio Busquets, who for me, he’s the best defensive midfielder in the world and you see his talent on the ball and he plays it simple and how quick he plays and always picks out the right pass. Also with a team like Barcelona where they commit so many players forward, when they lose the ball they’re susceptible to the counter attack, but so many times Busquets is there like a brick wall and stops it before it can gain momentum.

What is currently going on with the USMNT and not qualifying for the World Cup?

It’s definitely a huge setback. Like you’ve said, we’ve been taking steps forward and then there’s this major step back. As far as what happened it could be down to a lot of things, but I’m not going to get into all of that because that’s a huge controversy that people still talk about today. I don’t think there’s just one answer. There was that one game we needed to win and we didn’t. That’s the reality. Like anything in life you’re going to take steps forwards and take steps back and it’s how we respond to it. This may be a big step backward but we have to learn from it and who knows what will happen in the future? Maybe something clicks and we see even greater things to come from US soccer. That’s the hope. Now the young players may get that chance with iconic players like Michael Bradley and Tim Howard finishing with the national team and these younger players may fill their shoes and do better and raise our expectations.

Speaking to Chuba Akpom last week, he said a younger player is a hungrier player always wanting to do well. You think it’s getting that right blend with the USMNT?

Yeah definitely. Obviously you want that experience in your team because when things aren’t going well, you have that guy who’s been through times like this. He’ll know what to say and how to react to certain things to bring up the mood and help the attitude of the team. If you have a guy who’s been through thick and thin, that’s essential. As a young player you have that eagerness to play hard and that’s something I have as well. You’re eager to play, you want to show yourself. I think it’s good to also have that mature player.

Did you play many other sports in America other than football?

I did other sports. Up until 12, 13 or even 14 I did swimming in the summer because the football season would be finished for two months in June and July. Me, my brothers and sisters all did swimming and it helped with cardio and staying active in the summer. I enjoyed it a lot and I was competitive. I want to be the best I can be at whatever I do. I also played basketball for three or four years and that’s a sport I really like. I like watching it, the NBA and that kind of stuff and I really enjoyed playing it, but it conflicted with my football so I had to make a choice and obviously I was always going to pick football.

If the USMNT and Colombia both offered you your first international cap, which would you choose?

Ha, I get this question a lot. I always have to choose the United States. Obviously both my parents are Colombian and I always have Colombian pride because that’s where my parents grew up and made their lives. But I was born and grew up in America all my life. I have that pride in me. I’ve only ever just travelled to Colombia and not lived there so for me, it’ll always be America.

It’s not a bad choice to have though

Yeah it’s true. The Colombian national team is very strong. I do support them and they will be at the World Cup. Their national team is very very good.

To end…what do you miss most about America?

Just my family really. That’s the biggest things for me. We’re all very close and I would see them everyday. That was the biggest sacrifice I had to make. For me the family is the biggest thing I miss. I’ve been coping with it well and I can see them in the off season. But yeah, it has to be them.

After thanking him again, it showed how articulate and humble the young man was. A tough season on the pitch for the club, whereas off it, Juan Pablo Torres is soaking up every drop of experience that can aid him with hopefully a long career ahead!

Posted in Matches in Brief

Finally a top 3 team win!

That’s not the big story of the weekend but it was a surprise as Anderlecht grabbed their first win in a while, as the top three have been pretty hopeless in 2018. Big points won and lost though over the weekend as a whole, with Sunday rounding us off with a surprise in the Derby, mainly because I didn’t see it coming. Even a good Essevee fan I chat with was pleasantly surprised.

Defays will see positives in his sides defeat to Anderlecht yesterday. It could’ve been extremely embarrassing, and it was really, mainly for letting Teodorczyk score a hat trick. Who does that?!? But the negative is that you shouldn’t let yourself get into a situation where you’re 4-0 down, and then you start taking chances.

I tweeted saying that this isn’t over when Awoniyi scored, and I was right as Mouscron pulled it back to 4-3, until Morioka grabbed his second of the day, and his second goal for the club, to kill any hope. Mouscron have scored 3 away at Anderlecht and Standard, 2 away at Club Brugge and have still ended up losing. This isn’t great, although very entertaining. Superb fight back nonetheless and I’m sure Anderlecht are just happy with the win, although they like to keep things interesting, like they did at Mechelen and Eupen already this season.

A surprisingly close match, judging by score line at the Maurice Dufrasne where Les Rouches were lucky with their goal as half the squad were offside, including Ochoa! I just can’t believe how the points gap at the top is never dented with this abysmal run of draws Brugge have had. If this is them having their poor run, then it’s come in time before the playoffs, but this is a concern. Standard have been very good this year and would be sixth if they held on. I feel like apologising for the times I have been unfair to Sa Pinto this season. With top six now a huge possibility and the cup final, it could be memorable.

Now. A lot of people, well some…okay, two or three people, because nobody watches this league here, felt Kortrijk would come out on top. I believed it because they have been the outstanding team this season. But Essevee may have killed their top six dream with the difficult run in. A late Harbaoui penalty saw off De Kerels and Dury deserves praise getting the Tunisian in. De Boeck knows how important a win would have been and knows the difficulties of the task ahead. It’s not impossible of course, but Zulte Waregem would’ve loved it of course, with an amazing atmosphere as always at the Guldensporen.

Posted in Matches in Brief

It’s going down to the wire

Yesterday could be a defining day at, well, maybe both ends of the table once the points are halved. But the title refers to the bottom 3! I had to do that number in bold because Lokeren have slept walked into a relegation battle. A draw. Only a draw was needed to guarantee survival and they blew it. This is where you can question attitude. Disgusting home form but beating decent teams away doesn’t make for a positive season.

Eupen came back and won and showed that character which has drawn them level with Mechelen, and dragged the Tricolores into this as well. Superb by Makélélé as I felt this was a bit of an impossible job for him. But a marvellous win nonetheless. I’ve been a little harsh on social media towards Van Crombrugge because he has said he’ll aim to keep Eupen up and then move on. He nearly cost them four points in two matches if it wasn’t for the Luis Garcia winner. A huge win for the Pandas, with Lokeren now gasping for air.

Mechelen could’ve been one point behind Lokeren and had some daylight between themselves and the bottom club, only for the reliable Mats Rits to miss a late penalty. A draw against Charleroi is good, but a vital win would’ve not only been key, but a confidence builder. Just think, if De Kakkers had held on against Anderlecht and Gent, with Rits scoring that penalty, they’d be six points better off and basically safe! The win over Eupen two weeks ago could be the pivotal victory. Charleroi just can’t win. Top teams don’t tend to have two separate runs of matches in a season where they’re really poor. No win in 6 and with Gent joining the race for second. An amazing season could turn disastrous for Les Zébres.

Talking of Gent, I had mixed feelings about the result. I do like Beveren and in terms of deserving a chance it goes to them. But Gent are just quality. I said last night I feel they’re best equipped to represent Belgium in the Champions League next season. All the signings are working, other key players take it in turns to step up, they’ve been brilliant. But so have Beveren and I can’t criticise them. Vermant tasted defeat for the first time as manager and it could’ve been prevented. I may have been harsh on Mechelen saying ‘if they’d done this…if they’d done that…’ but if you don’t win, then don’t lose, and Beveren got caught out late. Massive win for De Buffalos as Beveren will most likely have to settle for Playoff 2.

At the Versluys, Oostende are quietly going about their business. Not only have they potentially scuppered another teams Playoff 1 hopes, but they won well through a brace by Bjelica, and kept a third clean sheet in a row! I’m probably sounding repetitive, but the clouds off field seem to be clearing for De Kustboys. STVV seem to be good one week, and then average the next. Looking to build from their win over Anderlecht, they just couldn’t. To not score with some quality strikers, that’s either a worry for De Roeck, or proof of how defensively solid Oostende have been. A quality 2-0 win with two extremely tough remaining matches.

Without forgetting, Genk demolished one of the worst teams in the JPL right now with a 4-0 win over Antwerp. After beating STVV away in December before the break, I was positive about Antwerp, but their season has massively fallen and have dropped out of top six contention surely. Genk are looking impressive, not only going into the playoffs, but the cup final too. Phillipe Clement is really just a great coach. To give Beveren a shout early on and now putting Genk in the top six and a cup final. What a maiden season for Clement.

Posted in Player Profile

Player Profile: Andile Jali

After chatting with Chuba Akpom this week, I thought I’d try and take a look at one of the players whose main job this weekend will be stopping the supply to him, breaking up play and starting the odd attack. Defensive midfielder has become a thing in recent years, separating the orthodox central midfield role into attacking and defensive, and Andile Jali has proved key in that deep role for Oostende.

Playing in about 90% of this season’s league fixtures for De Kustboys, he has shown that he is trustworthy as well as quality in that battle. The other positive is that the South African has managed four assists in those matches from that deeper position, meaning that he can play the odd killer ball, creating goal scoring opportunities, mainly for defenders! Unsurprisingly he hasn’t got onto the scoresheet, but stopping efforts is the objective, not taking efforts.

A huge problem for Jali is his ill discipline. Picking up six yellow cards this season, as well as a straight red, the defensive player will need to either work on his timing or tackling. It does show commitment, and I’m certain nobody will ever doubt that, but to be suspended for three matches this season through too many yellows or a red, well three and a half matches as his red was very early against Zulte Waregem, that’s 10% of regular season matches missed in a season. He may have a reputation that referees look for too which is a worry, and not unlikely.

Last time STVV played Oostende, an extremely late Jonathan Legear winner broke the Seasiders hearts. However, that setback setup a six match unbeaten run which saw three straight victories. Sint-Truiden will be dangerous, especially late on, and defensively tight, but the recent form of KVO has been decent and will be boosted by their own little defensive run.

A turbulent season on and off the pitch this season for Oostende can end positively. A new owner, a fresh start and almost no pressure as they know they’re safe and could be a danger in Playoff 2, can the West Enders serve up a win with the determination and quality shown by Jali…?

Posted in Player Interview

Player Interview: Chuba Akpom

Since I have been writing my Belgian football blog, I have managed to speak to every Englishman who has played in the Pro League. I’ve managed to speak to Gary Martin and Jordan Mustoe, but without being too unkind, this is a big one. Current Sint-Truidense striker, on loan from Arsenal, Chuba Akpom took some time out to chat with me as we discussed the past, present and future as I dived straight in!

Hello Chuba, I saw that you specifically chose STVV. Were there many clubs wanting you on loan last January?

Yeah I had clubs. Especially in England. I just wanted a fresh environment where I could get my head down. Get back to playing regular football.

Why the move abroad?

I just wanted a new environment. Obviously the team (STVV) has been doing well. I was speaking to one of their coaches and he told me some good things about the club, so I thought I’d go and get regular football.

I read that you’d researched STVV. What was the thing you liked about the club to make you join?

I think the main thing was just to play regularly for a team who is fighting for something, you know? Fighting to play in Playoff 1.

Did you know anything about the Pro League? Especially this season?

I knew about the teams who’d played in Europe like Anderlecht in the past. I knew that some top players had come from the Belgian league. I had to do a bit of research on the league and how they play and stuff. It’s a good league. I’d say it’s underestimated. Obviously not as big as the Premier League but there are good players here.

I’ve been told it’s more physical than some leagues. You’ve obviously played in the Championship. Is it that physical or more technical?

Yeah it’s a physical league. I’ve played in the Championship and I’d probably say that the Championship is one of the most intense leagues in Europe. Here, the teams are very organised and are physically good. It’s a tough league and is definitely underestimated.

So far you’ve had three tough matches. How has the quality compared to English football?

You can tell by the quality. These top teams have maybe those few players who have that quality on the ball and tactically they’re organised, meaning we have to be that more organised when we play these top teams.

In the matches you’ve started you were unlucky, especially against Gent. Hitting the post and the team received, what I thought was an unfair red card. What did the manager say after that match?

He was happy with the shift we put in. It’s just the fact we didn’t take our chances that he was disappointed with because in that Gent game, the score line didn’t reflect how the match went. We had a few chances and could’ve been leading in the first half. It does show that we can compete against the other top teams. If we start taking chances, like you saw against Anderlecht when we beat them, it showed we can compete against them.

There was a minor break during the first half against Anderlecht. Had you ever experienced that before?

No. I’ve never experienced anything like that actually. The atmosphere was good, but obviously when the flares went onto the pitch, it made it difficult for the players to see. But I think it helped us.

I was going to ask if that break helped as you took the lead shortly after that

I think it definitely helped because we went into the changing room and tactically changed things. Their midfield was playing deeper so we changed it up and it actually worked better for us. It worked in our favour.

You scored a quality goal through persistence and composure. Did you hit the shot early to catch the goalkeeper out?

I thought if I took it early I’d be able to catch him off guard and the ball just sat up right for me to have a shot, so I thought ‘why not?’

Going by the celebration, you seem to already have settled within the squad. How much have the players helped to integrate you?

Yeah I feel like I’ve settled. Obviously the transition from a big club like Arsenal to Sint-Truiden, things are different. I’m just getting used to everything. The surroundings, my teammates. I think the best thing for that is to just be playing and gaining an understanding. It’s nice because the celebration was good because it showed the team unity. That we’re all playing for each other because we all want to get into Playoff 1.

With that win, and the other results last weekend, just four points separate six teams. You have three tough matches to finish the regular season. Do the team have the belief to get into the top six?

The manager just told us to focus on ourselves. Focus on our three matches and get as many points from each game. Obviously we’ll need help from the other teams sometimes, but I think we need to just focus on ourselves and win each game. It’s going to be tough, we know that, but we got belief from the Anderlecht win.

With an inferior goal difference, as well as having Charleroi and Club Brugge, is the top six realistic?

We need luck and we need to take our chances as well. Who knows? If we can win two or three from our remaining fixtures…it sounds tough but that’s what we’ve got to be aiming for. You never know?

The Stayen has a synthetic pitch. How do you feel about playing on it? Do you prefer grass or the synthetic pitch?

It’s not something that I’m used to. It’s taking me a while to adapt to in training. The pitch is harder than grass so some people may be worried about getting injured on there, but so far I haven’t had any problems.

Do you know if there’s any benefits playing on there regarding injury prevention or sustaining injuries?

It’s not scientifically proven if a synthetic pitch injures players, so I’m not too sure. All I can say is that it’s definitely harder, so physically it’ll be harder on the body. For STVV it benefits us because not a lot of teams play on synthetic, so when teams come to our ground, they’re not used to it, whereas we train on it so we’re more used to it.

Amongst my questions, I was asked to question Chuba on behalf of @PlayingAFH on Twitter!

PAFH – Even though you’ve been in Belgium a short while, how has it compared to being on loan at an English club?

Yeah there’s a difference in the way that clubs do things. A small example is that we have to take our boots ourselves to games, which I think is a culture thing, because I think all clubs do it. In England it’s not like this. I think it’s good for me in helping me adapt as there’s obviously a different language and different way of doing things. It can only be good for me. I’ve come out of my comfort zone because I know this can make me a better player and better person. As long as I’m doing what I love, which is playing football, I have no problems!

Obviously you’ve only been here a short while but you’re looking good and confident. Are you enjoying your stint so far?

It’s funny because I’m confident at the moment and I know there’s more to come! These were my first two matches in four months so I’m just gradually getting back into it. I still feel I can give more than I’ve actually given so far. I’m just hoping as the games keep coming I’ll get more confidence, more match fit and everything will just click. I just want everyone to see what I can do.

To compare the managers (age wise) you have Arsene Wenger coming to the end of his career, but Jonas De Roeck has basically just started. How do they compare in their approach with their differences in age?

Yeah there’s definitely a difference. Arsene Wenger is one of the best managers in the world who’s calm and humble. He is very intelligent with the way he approaches things. Overall he is a calming influence. Now with Jonas De Roeck, you can tell he is very passionate. Everything is intense. He wants his players to always give 100% like he does. You can tell he spends a lot of time behind closed doors doing tactical things. He has a direct approach. Both are different in the way they do things.

PAFH – Which coach or player has been the biggest influence on your career or has helped you the most?

I would say Tomas Rosicky. Since I was young I was in and out of training with the first team at 16-17 and he saw something special in me. He would always try and help me in training or in the matches. He was always speaking to me, telling me I’ve always got that quality and that I should keep going. It’s something I will never forget giving me that motivation. When a top player like Rosicky is telling me he believes in me, it certainly going to give you a lot of confidence.

Do you feel you’ve been given a fair chance at Arsenal?

I would’ve liked to have been involved a lot more. Like any player, I was just eager to play. That’s me, I’m always eager to play. I’m passionate but I didn’t get that game time. What can I say? I’ve always stayed confident, optimistic, patient and eager to play, which is happening now.

It’s almost like that frustration is spilling out into your performances right now

Yeah, basically (as he chuckles) I’ve just been eager to play!

With 18 months left on your Arsenal contract, would you say you still have time to showcase your talent at Arsenal?

Yeah definitely. You never know what could happen in football. I just always have that confidence in myself to show what I can do, so I need to be ready. However, my focus for now is helping STVV to get into the Playoffs. That’s my focus.

I only ask because for example, Jeremie Aliadiere had years at Arsenal, but Benik Afobe was shipped out quite quickly and is still a Premier League player. If you got your chance, do you think you could, for example, flourish like Harry Kane when he was given the chance?

Yeah definitely. It’s always been my dream to play for Arsenal. I’ve been there since I was six! Of course I feel if I got the chance I’ll take it and it’ll be another story!

PAFH – Do you think youth players get enough opportunities at the bigger clubs in England?

In England there’s world class talent coming through academies. I feel if the players played they’d take their chances and wouldn’t feel out of place. For a manager, looking to win the Premier League, a lot of them go for experience that have done it before, not trying to risk with any player from the academy. It’s tough for players like us coming through.

Would you not feel that a manager is more worried about getting sacked? That’s why they don’t take the risk?

That could play a part. I think a manager has to realise that a young kid is going to try harder and be more hungry. He’ll always give 100% and they’ll be more grateful.

Finally, unfortunately there have been a couple of cases of racism in Belgium this season. Have you come across a lot of that in your career?

Yeah I have. How it still goes on in this day and age…I had it when I was playing for England. It’s tough for us players cause all we want to do is play football, no matter what colour. For there to be racist abuse is just unacceptable. Fans come and watch games and it shouldn’t be allowed. It’s 2018! There’s Asian players, African players, European players all over the world and the fans who are racist have a diverse team and yet they’re racist to the opposition. It doesn’t make sense?

After a brief chat thanking him for his time, the young striker was very polite and was talkative as the interview went on. Not only do I appreciate the time taken by Chuba Akpom, but I am also extremely grateful for the press staff at Sint-Truidense for allowing him to chat.

Good luck Chuba!

Posted in Mid Season Grading

The Form Table

With the regular season drawing to a close, we have just three matches left to settle who’ll get those final top six places, and who’ll still get relegated?

Starting at the bottom of the league, three teams can mathematically still get relegated in Eupen, Mechelen and Lokeren. I knew teams like Lokeren, Mouscron and even Oostende have been in trouble since after the winter break, but two of those three have dug themselves out, although I never truly believed they were in danger. But Lokeren are currently the worst team in the JPL going by form, mainly because of a -7 goal difference.

Eupen and Mechelen aren’t actually doing that much better either. It’s all great that their performances on the pitch have been exceptional for two teams trying to survive, but its points that count, and I’m sure both would take drab 1-0 wins than exciting 2-2 draws. With both picking up five points since the break, the only happy ones are Mechelen as their heads are still above water. Out of the two, going by form, De Kakkers have the tougher run in, but if they perform as well as they have under Dennis Van Wijk, I don’t think that really matters. If Lokeren win or draw this weekend against Eupen, they’re safe regardless.

If we move our eyes slightly up this table, 8-10 is occupied by Charleroi, Club Brugge and Anderlecht respectively. These have had an atrocious start to 2018, with one win each! The last win by any of these was by Club Brugge against Oostende, and they even made hard work of that in the end. I wrote a piece recently about them all losing their bottle. The thing is, I always assume they’ll win because form is temporary, but each week they all collapse, especially Les Mauves right now. If we solely go by form, I can only maybe see one win by any of these for the rest of the season, and that’s Anderlecht against Mouscron.

I’ve doubted the chasing bunch, or the ‘peloton’ in this case, racing for fifth and sixth. Not through lack of quality, but difficulty of match. Kortrijk and STVV have the toughest run on paper, although Antwerp have a difficult one too, and they’re 14th in the form table! Full credit to three clubs who have come back revitalised since the break, maybe through signings or matters off the pitch. Standard Liège (3rd), Zulte Waregem (5th) and Oostende (7th) have been impressive in their race for the Playoffs or survival.

Winning eight games between them, Liège have managed to put themselves into top six contention. Essevee may not get there this season, but they will extremely dangerous in Playoff 2, and Oostende have actually performed so well since their ownership situation has been sorted and losing Siani to Antwerp, which could show his influence maybe hindered them?

There are currently two unbeaten sides this year too. Gent and Beveren haven’t lost a match in 2018 and it’s as if losing isn’t an option when they play. Both been impressive under their new managers, although Beveren have been fantastic all season. Gent haven’t cemented their top six place just yet, but with a win this weekend and their far superior goal difference will secure it, however, Beveren need results to go their way .

I’m ending with the form teams this year. Kortrijk have simply been amazing. So good that they’re 5th in the league and top of the form chart. Four wins out of their last five and winning handsomely against Antwerp and against Mouscron. They’ve been exciting and defensively sound too. Genk have also been brilliant, also winning four this year, including the Oostende win, yet I haven’t included that in this as it was initially postponed from last year. Genk have been like that student who didn’t revise all year for the exam and scraped the pass on the day of the test. If they beat Antwerp this Friday, that’ll basically knock them out I reckon.