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.

UEFA Champions League Preview: 11 places still up for grabs

ONLY FIVE teams have qualified so far for the last 16: Bayern, Bruges, Manchester City, Real Madrid and Napoli. So, there’s plenty to play for in matchday five and there could be a couple of high profile clubs finding their way to the Europa League.

Group A: Ajax – Liverpool; Napoli – Rangers.

Ajax, for all their European heritage, are almost out of the competition, although they will probably qualify for the Europa League. Liverpool, despite a stuttering start to the season in the Premier, thought they were finding their form when they beat Manchester City, but they had another setback and lost 1-0 against struggling Nottingham Forest. A draw for Liverpool in Amsterdam will send them through to the next stage. Napoli have already qualified, they are currently the most exciting team in Europe and their performances in Serie A and the Champions League have been impressive. Sadly, Rangers have looked out of their depth and their 7-1 humbling at home to Liverpool really summed up their experience this season.

Group B: Club Brugge – Porto; Atlético Madrid – Bayer Leverkusen

Bruges were one of the first teams to qualify for the knockout phase after winning three of their first four games. They are only the third Belgian team to reach the last 16 this century, Anderlecht (2000-01) and Gent (2015-16) were the others. Their opponents, Porto, need a win to keep some space between themselves and Atlético Madrid, but the second place in the group is likely to be decided by the meeting between these two teams on November 1 in Portugal. Leverkusen have been disappointing this season, both at home and in the Champions League, although they did beat Atlético in the last matchday.

Group C: Inter Milan – Viktoria Plzn; Barcelona – Bayern Munich

Barcelona went perilously close to elimination in the last group game against Inter, which ended 3-3. Inter know that a win against Plzn will put Barca out, regardless of how they face against group leaders Bayern. There has been much angst in Barcelona since the game with Inter, with concerns about their financial situation should they fail to qualify for the last 16. Barca have also lost ground in La Liga, despite the goals of Robert Lewandowski. Bayern, who have qualified, have been impressive in Europe, winning all four of their games and averaging three goals per game, while conceding just two goals.

Group D: Eintracht Frankfurt – Marseille; Tottenham – Sporting Lisbon

Anyone could still qualify from this group, but victories for Marseille and Tottenham could take both through. Frankfurt were unlucky to lose 3-2 at Tottenham, but they bounced back with a five-goal performance in the Bundesliga against Leverkusen. Marseille have been going well but were beaten by title rivals in France, Paris Saint-Germain. Spurs’ early season effervescence has lost a little of its fizz, with defeats against Arsenal and Manchester United, but they are still upbeat. They are particularly strong at home.

Group E: Red Bull Salzburg – Chelsea; Dinamo Zagreb – AC Milan.

This group remains quite open but the fifth matchday should start to sort things out. Chelsea, leaders of the group, are in good form under new boss Graham Potter, although their last two games have been disappointing with draws against Brentford and Manchester United. Salzburg, league leaders in Austria, faced second-placed Sturm Graz. They are still unbeaten in the Champions League group. AC Milan and Zagreb are still in the mix but a win for either will knock the loser out of contention. Milan are still chasing leaders Napoli at home and have lost just once in Serie A.

Group F: Celtic – Shakhtar Donetsk; RB Leipzig – Real Madrid.

Celtic are out of the competition, but still have feint hopes of finishing third and qualifying for the Europa League. Shakhtar, who should be too strong for them, would probably keep themselves in contention with a win in Glasgow. They recently beat big rivals Dynamo Kyiv in the Ukrainian Premier League, but everything is overshadowed by the war with Russia. RB Leipzig have turned their season around in recent weeks and have won five of their last six games. Their two wins against Celtic in the group have revitalised their Champions League campaign. Real Madrid will be a tough task as they are unbeaten in La Liga and recently beat Barcelona in El Clasico, followed by a 3-1 win against Sevilla.

Group G: Sevilla – FC Copenhagen; Borussia Dortmund – Manchester City

This round of matches will effectively be the group leadership decider and the Europa League qualifier. Dortmund host City with the top two places up for grabs. City were beaten for the first time this season when they went down 1-0 at Liverpool, but they returned to winning ways against Brighton. Liverpool prevented Erling Haaland from scoring, but the huge Norwegian will be keen to score against his old club. Dortmund, who came through two table-topping games with Bayern and Union with just one point to show for their efforts, know a win will secure their place in the last 16. Sevilla have picked up in the past few games and should be too good for a Copenhagen side who struggle to win games, although they did achieve a credible draw with City in their last Champions League fixture.

Group H: Benfica – Juventus; Paris Saint-Germain – Maccabi Haifa

Benfica have enjoyed their Champions League campaign so far and are within touching distance of the last 16. Juventus, by contrast, are almost out, although a win in Lisbon will delay the ignominy of an early exit. Juve were beaten 2-0 in their last group game in Haifa, but won the Turin derby afterwards and beat Emploi 4-0 at the weekend. Speculation is still rife about the future of coach Max Allegri. Benfica warmed up for this game with a big clash against Porto. PSG should win against Maccabi Haifa and followed up their 1-1 draw with Benfica with a 1-0 victory against old rivals Olympique Marseille. PSG may be distracted due to the continued talk of Kylian Mbappe moving in January and there are also rumours about Lionel Messi returning to Barcelona.