giovedì 28 aprile 2011

Playoffs spark Standard Liege title push

Less than a month ago, the prospect of lifting the Belgian title looked a distant one for Standard Liege. The Rouches (the Reds) ended the Jupiler Pro League regular season in sixth spot, 16 points below league leaders Anderlecht and 15 behind runners-up Genk. However, in this last playoff stage it has taken just two games for the Walloon side to force their way into the title race, and at the time of writing Standard are just two points off topping the playoff table.

Under Belgian league rules, sides placed first to sixth play off for the title, starting with half the points gained during the regular season.

Standard had an impressive start to life in the playoffs, defeating Anderlecht 3-1 in Brussels and following this up with a 2-1 home victory over Genk. Last Saturday, the Rouches made it three out of three, seeing off Gent on home turf. Since the real business has begun, Dominique D’Onofrio’s side has proven to be peaking at just the right time. Their regular season campaign had proven to be one of ups and downs, with the 58-year-old coach often going on record to criticise his side’s lack of consistency – particularly away from home. D’Onofrio has always been able to count on the support of his brother Luciano, who serves as the club’s vice-chairman and head of the board. To answer supporters’ complaints about the Italian-born coach, Standard moved to appoint former player Sergio Conceicao as D’Onofrio’s assistant.

“Standard is a long term project”, stated Luciano D’Onofrio. “We are building a team full of young and talented players. Most of them come from our youth academy. We need time to develop a high-performing team. In the current season we had a lot of injuries too. However, when Standard can play with our best eleven, we can beat every opponent.”

Between 2008 and 2010, Standard won two Belgian titles in a row (the first with Michel Preud’Homme in charge while the second saw Laszlo Boloni at the helm) and reached the quarter-finals of the Europa League. This golden spell did not last for long though. Standard proceeded to sell many of their key performers to boost the club’s finances: Marouane Fellaini (Everton), Dieumerci Mbokani (Monaco), Oguchi Onyewu (AC Milan), Milan Jovanovic (Liverpool), Igor de Camargo, Dante Bonfim (both Borussia Monchengladbach) and Marcos Camozzato (Club Brugge) all exited the Stade Maurice Dufrasne. For the Belgian side, 2010/11 represented the beginning of a new era.

And it was no surprise to see the Rouches underperform throughout this season. A side which could thrash Anderlecht 5-1 would also find a way to lose to little Eupen. Standard were able to reach the Belgian Cup final after knocking out Genk, Mechelen and Gent, but this is a side that also lost nine out of 15 away games in the regular season.

Despite these inconsistent performances, Standard still have one of the finest teams on paper in the entire Belgian league. Midfield is the Walloon side’s strongest area, with internationals Axel Witsel, Steven Defour, the veteran Franck Berrier and rising star Mehdi Carcela Gonzalez – the club’s top scorer along with forward Mohammed Tchite; Tchite is crucial to Standard’s success, with superb movement off the ball which opens up space for rampaging midfielders. Other key players are goalkeeper Sinan Bolat and 20-year-old centre back Eliaquim Mangala. Another 20-year-old, Ivorian Cyriac Gohi Bi, is yet another hot prospect, having landed at Standard from Ivory Coast talent factory ASEC Mimosas, where the striker was the club’s top scorer.

But Standard’s quality does not end there. Coach D’Onofrio can even count on reserves like Aloys Nong. The Cameroonian was bought last August from Mechelen, but failed to impress. With no goals from 12 games played, Nong was quickly labelled a flop. But with three goals in two games in the playoffs, the Cameroonian has transformed his season. First he netted a brace against Anderlecht in the 3-1 win and then grabbed the winner against Genk in the dying minutes of the contest.

“Standard will play for the title”, said highly-rated midfielder Defour before the playoffs began. While such a statement might sound like typical bravado, the Liege side are backing up Defour’s words thus far.

For the Walloon region, Standard’s success is welcome respite from a time of struggle. Football in the French-speaking provinces of Belgium is facing a deep financial crisis. Both La Louviere and Excelsior Mouscron went bankrupt in recent years and now Charleroi and Eupen are fighting against relegation in their own playoff – even the winners are not sure of staying in the top flight as they play in a promotion playoff against clubs placed second to fourth in the Tweede Klasse – Belgium’s second tier. In the country’s second division five of the 18 clubs are from Walloon, while in the third tier the figure is 10 out of 36.

Therefore, it is no surprise that half of Belgium will be on Standard’s side as they race for the title. To end 2010/11 as Belgian champions would be a remarkable turnaround for a club still in transition.

Fonte: Inside Futbol

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