Coach László Bölöni retracted his statement about wanting his R.Standard de Liège side to reach their peak as the UEFA Champions League group stage begins, deciding he wants them on song as the Belgian league kicks off tonight.
Having led Standard to their second successive title in his first season after taking over from Michel Preud'homme, the Romanian coach initially earmarked European competition as his priority for the season, but with their Eerste Klasse opener against K. Sint-Truidense VV fast approaching, he has changed his tune. "We want to be at our absolute best for the opening game against Sint-Truiden," he said. "I now realise that it is absurd to only aim to be at our best in September. On the contrary, we have to get some points on the board ahead of the heavy 'English weeks' to come."
Barring Oguchi Onyewu's move to AC Milan, Standard are largely unchanged from the outfit that won last season's title with a play-off victory against RSC Anderlecht after the two teams finished the regular season level on points. Anderlecht too have a settled lineup, but showed that they will be serious challengers for the championship again earlier this week. They trounced Turkish side Sivasspor 5-0 in the UEFA Champions League third qualifying round, with Matías Suárez and Tom De Sutter forming a great strike partnership, while Nicolas Frutos showed class coming off the bench.
For the 106th Belgian league season, Anderlecht coach Ariël Jacobs has only one real target: "To win our 30th title, but the fitful nature of football will not allow me to make any predictions." He added: "We have to be positive. Last season, everything cannot have been so bad, otherwise we would not have ended up level with Standard in the league." KAA Gent, Club Brugge KV, KRC Genk, SV Zulte Waregem, KSC Lokeren OV and KVC Westerlo are the sides seen as most likely to challenge the big two.
Meanwhile, a new league structure may challenge Europe's statisticians. The Eerste Klasse has been reduced from 18 teams to 16, with the league dividing into play-off sections after the 30th round. The top six will then compete for the title and European places in a mini-league, starting off with half of the points they amassed from the regular season. The teams that finish between seventh and 14th will have their points total wiped out while they are divided into two mini-leagues, with the winners in both competing for the right to play off for a UEFA Europa League place against the side that finishes fourth – or fifth depending on the outcome of the Belgian Cup final – in the championship group. The bottom team will be relegated, with the side finishing 15th playing off against the second, third and fourth placed second division teams for a top-flight place.
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