Thriving under Peter Maes' methodical approach, KSC Lokeren OV are on the verge of reaching the Belgian championship play-offs, allowing them to compete for European football once again.
It is reaching that time of the season in Belgium, when the league is divided after 30 games and the top six battle it out for the title and UEFA competition places. With two matches to go before the split, fifth-placed Lokeren are six points clear of the team in seventh, KV Mechelen.
Saturday's goalless stalemate at Waasland-Beveren means Maes' men need just a draw from their next two fixtures to confirm their play-off status – while they will be in anyway if Mechelen do not pick up maximum points themselves.
Maes joined from Mechelen in 2010, following a season where Lokeren finished 14th. He has since engendered his own playing culture at the club. "We always train using the same system," the 48-year-old said. "Everyone who plays for us, including those on the bench, knows perfectly well what is expected.
There's a coat rack in which I just have to fit in the players: the tasks are always clear."
Since Maes' arrival, Lokeren have regularly challenged for a top-six spot. He took them to the play-offs in his first season at the club and led them to Belgian Cup glory last term. "This group is very ambitious and I also have a number of players who continuously push the others forward," added Maes, whose side just missed out on the UEFA Europa League group stage this term after an away-goals defeat by FC Viktoria Plzeň. "Killian Overmeire, Koen Persoons, Ivan Leko and Mijat Marić are very important to driving the rest on."
Alongside those four, Maes has created a solid and reliable outfit, with the likes of Danish defender Alexander Scholz and Spanish attacking midfielder Walter Fernández making up for last summer's departures of Laurens De Bock and Benjamin De Ceulaer. The coach himself has added to the feeling of stability by signing a new two-year contract in January to keep him at Lokeren until 2016.
The former goalkeeper is now hoping his team make a better fist of the play-offs than they did in his first season. "Two years ago we took six points. This time we want to do better. We want to aim for the prizes: a European ticket, and that means top four. I am not saying we will get there, but of course we will try."
Sitting two points behind third-placed KRC Genk, and with all teams' points divided in half at the start of the play-offs, the mission feels more than feasible for Lokeren.
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