Action moves back onto the field as Belgian league kicks off

Brussels (AFP) – Many Belgian clubs were unhappy when last season came to a premature halt, and many are disgruntled as the reformatted league starts a new season.

In March, Belgium was one of the first European countries to end its 2019-20 season due to the coronavirus crisis. 

On Saturday, it will be one of the first to launch its 2020-21 season.

But the months in between have not been quiet in Belgian football, although the action, frequently ferocious, has been confined to committee rooms.

When last season ended the teams had played 29 of the 30 rounds that make up the regular season.

Club Brugge were 15 points clear and were awarded the title with the six-team championship playoff scrapped. 

The problems came at the other end of the table where Waasland-Beveren were bottom but within one victory of Ostend and Circle Brugge with one match to play.

Beveren were relegated while Beerschot, who had won the closing tournament in the second division, were promoted. Beveren and OH Louvain, who had won the opening second-division tournament and should have faced Beerschot in a playoff, fought back.

After a long saga, the league capitulated. The top division will be increased from 16 to 18 teams. 

The expansion has left some clubs disgruntled because the TV rights cake will now be cut into 18 slices and the change in format forced by the expansion could shrink the size of the cake.

Five years ago the Pro League adopted a six-team title playoff to increase the number of matches between the best teams and the value to broadcasters.

To accommodate the extra regular-season rounds, the playoffs will be cut to four teams.

On the field, the format probably will not have a huge impact.

Last year’s runaway league leaders Club Brugge look the strongest again, although they lost last the final of last season’s Belgian Cup 1-0 to Antwerp on August 1.

Brugge have by far the biggest budget and retain retained the backbone of their team with Simon Mignolet in goal and Ruud Vormer and Hans Vanaken running midfield.

Gent,  a distant second last season, seem set to lose star striker Jonathan David to Lille, who are prepared to pay a club for a record €30 million ($35.5 million) for the Canadian.

The two traditional big boys of Belgian football, Standard Liege and Anderlecht, seemed mired in mediocrity. 

Frenchman Philippe Montanier, former Real Sociedad and Nottingham Forest manager, has replaced Michel Preud’homme at Standard. 

Anderlecht finished eight last season after the arrival of Vincent Kompany in the triple role of player-manager-investor did not have the desired effect.

Before handing the coaching reins to Franky Vercauteren, Kompany put his faith in youth. The experiment failed but the youngsters start this season with much more experience.

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