Antwerp still eyeing a double in Belgium

THE BELGIAN Cup final takes place on Sunday April 30 at the stadium formerly known as Heysel, the King Baudouin in Brussels. Mechelen and Antwerp will contest the final with the latter still holding hopes of a league title in 2022-23. 

The Belgian Pro League has completed its first stage with Genk topping the table and three others joining them in the championship play-off group: Union Saint-Gilloise, Royal Antwerp and Club Brugge. It’s a tough group with Genk and USG on 38 points, Antwerp on 36 and Brugge on 30. They now play each other twice in that elite section, the first game taking place on cup final day between Genk and Brugge and then regular fixtures are scheduled until June 4.

Genk, who were last league champions in 2019, have the slight edge on their rivals as they fared better in games against the top four sides, but it is close. Wouter Vrancken’s side have been boosted by the goals of Joseph Paintsil, the Ghanaian striker who is being closely followed by a number of Premier League clubs, including Fulham and Brighton. Paintsil, 25, has scored 14 times in the Pro League this season. Earlier in 2023, Genk sold Paul Onuachu to Southampton for £ 18 million, but the move hasn’t worked too well for both player and the Saints. Onuachu has not scored for the Saints despite netting 16 goals before leaving Genk. There is now talk of him being sold in the summer. 

Union Saint-Gilloise, who are now in the hands of Brighton owner Tony Bloom, are in the title play-off for the second year running after blowing their top spot in 2021-22. USG also enjoyed a good run to the last eight of the UEFA Europa League, losing to Bayer Leverkusen 5-2 on aggregate. 

Antwerp, regarded as the oldest club in Belgium, have to go back to 1956-57 for their last title win. Their honours list is rather sparse, with only seven major prizes since 1880. Their most recent success was the Belgian Cup in 2020. They did reach a European final in 1993 when they lost to Parma in the Cup-Winners’ Cup at Wembley. Antwerp’s current coach is Mark van Bommel and their technical director is former Arsenal, Barcelona and Ajax forward Marc Overmars.

They have a sharp shooter in Vincent Janssen, who has 16 league goals to his credit this season. Janssen, now 28, spent three years with Tottenham between 2016 and 2019 and arrived in Antwerp after a relatively productive spell in Mexican football. Another former Spurs man, Toby Alderweireld, joined Antwerp in 2022 from Al-Duhail in the Qatar Stars League. Antwerp’s French goalkeeper, Jean Butez has also impressed and kept more clean sheets than any other keeper in the 34-game programme (19).

Brugge may be the outsiders in the play-offs, but they have a pedigree that suggests they will not give up the crown they have worn for five of the last seven years, including the last three. Earlier this season, they appointed former Fulham manager Scott Parker as coach, but it proved to be a poor move on their part and he was sacked in March. In the Champions League, Brugge reached the last 16 but were heavily beaten by Benfica, a defeat that proved to be Parker’s farewell game.

Anderlecht, who have won the Belgian league more times than any other club, have had a disappointing campaign, finishing 11th in the regular season. They lost their coach, Vincent Kompany, to Burnley and they have had, in recent years, financial difficulties and were victims of internet fraud. Furthermore, in 2019, they missed out on European football for the first time in 56 years. Anderlecht seem a long way from winning a 35thleague title, but they did reach the quarter-finals of the Conference League, going out on penalties to Dutch side AZ Alkmaar.

Antwerp won their way through to the cup final via a relatively difficult road that included victories against Union Saint-Gilloise and Genk, as well as Standard Liege and Beveren. Mechelen, who ended the regular season in the lower reaches of the table, had an easier time, beating Lokeren-Temse, Seraing, Kortrijk and Zulte Waregem.

Antwerp will be favourites given their league form and also because they beat Mechelen twice – 5-0 and 2-0. But in a one-off scenario and with Antwerp’s mind also on the struggle for the league title, there is room for a surprise or two. The “double” in Belgium is a rare achievement; the last team to achieve it was Brugge in 1996 and there have been just seven in total.

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