Cercle Brugge come full circle with best league finish in over a decade

They made their fans sweat, but Cercle Brugge eventually overcame Zulte Waregem at the weekend to grab the final play-off spot. As Anderlecht and Charleroi failed to win, the green and black were thankful to Thibo Somers late winner to leapfrog both sides and ensure they would be competing in the postseason.

The contrast to end the game was stark. One the one hand, Zulte Waregem’s 18 year stay in the top flight was over. During that time they had had European adventures and won two domestic cups. On the other side was a club that has regularly been involved in relegation battles, yet in recent years have put together a young group of players that are pushing the club up the table.

This was Cercle’s best finish for over a decade. In the 2011/2012 season Bob Peeters guided the team to 7th place, just missing out on the top six via goal difference. In that season, the top six played out play-off one, while everyone else but the bottom two was in play-off two. Cercle did manage to get through the second play-off that season, but in an even more complicated system than we had now they then lost out to Gent in a three team group including Mons.

Now, with the newly revamped play-off system, only the top eight can make the play-offs, with a split into two groups of four. For Cercle, this has been a long road back. They followed up their 7th place finish with a 16th place in 2012/2013, but avoided relegation. In 2013/2014 they were 11th, before finally succumbing to relegation in 2014/2015. It took them three years in the second tier before Frank Vercauteren returned them to the Pro League.

Since returning, the majority of their seasons have involved a battle to avoid the drop. Yet the 2021/2022 season marked a change. With Monaco’s backing, the side felt that it was time to show more ambition. Dominik Thalhammer replaced Yves Vanderhaeghe midway through the season and guided the side to 10th, just missing out on the play-offs after an impressive unbeaten run.

Yet when this current season started badly, the club were not afraid to pull the trigger. Thalhammer was replaced by Miron Muslic, and since then the side have been looking up rather than down. There is certainly enough quality in this young Cercle side to worry any team in the play-offs. One player to look out for will certainly be Japanese international Ayase Ueda, who has scored 18 goals in 34 games this season.

To start the play-offs they will be on 25 points, just three points behind the top side Gent. Should Cercle come out on top against Standard Liege, Westerlo and the aforementioned Gent, European football could be a possibility. If Antwerp beat Mechelen in the cup final on Sunday afternoon, whoever finishes top of play-off two will make it to Europe. If Cercle do make it into Europe, they would do so for the first time since 2010.

Once a side battling for relegation, the club are suddenly looking far more stable in the Pro League and, regardless of what happens in the play-offs, they have had a fantastic season.

GBeNeFN | Ben Jackson

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