Three weeks ago Holland’s domestic league, ranked the 4th best in Europe by UEFA’s coefficient metrics, was the tightest title race on the continent.
Since then, a combination of beneficial results and arguably the best run of form by any league leader in a major European competition has seen Ajax separate themselves from the pack to the tune of six points clear with just three matches left to play.
On March 14th six teams: Ajax, AZ Alkmaar, Feyenoord, FC Twente, PSV Eindhoven and Heerenveen were clustered atop the Eredivisie, clumped together like a pack of soft Dutch licorice, only four points separated 6th from 1st. The Eredivisie table hinted at a traditionally Dutch finish, normally decided on the penultimate or final weekend of the season. Unfortunately for the rest of the field, Ajax has had its foot pressed firmly on the accelerator since being embarrassed 2-0 at home by nearby rivals FC Utrecht on February 5th.
Ajax’s performances since the hiccup to Utrecht have been unflinchingly dominant, winning eleven consecutive fixtures while outscoring opponents 37-4. Michael de Leeuw’s goal for De Graafschap just before the half of the April 15th encounter is the only goal Ajax have conceded in their last seven league matches.
Ajax’s all but lifted record 31st title has not always looked so certain. To place the oddity of Ajax’s odyssey in perspective, the loss to FC Utrecht at home saw the Amsterdammers fall eight points behind then league leaders and media anointed title-holders PSV Eindhoven. The unthinkable had happened, Ajax sat in sixth place, historic minnows Heerenveen had leap-frogged them in the table, occupying fourth place, PSV and Twente had substantially better goal differentials, amazing facts considering that Ajax are now +52, which is 21 goals more positive than PSV and 12 better than Twente.
As if rifling off eleven straight “W”’s wasn’t enough, the five other would be contenders have faded miserably down the stretch, on March 30th just two points separated Jozy Altidore’s AZ Alkmaar and Heerenveen in sixth place, on the following day Ajax made SC Heracles Almelo look like true April fools, beating them 6-0 and they haven’t looked back, here’s a glance at how the paper tigers of the Eredivisie have squandered their chances of lifting the 2012 Eredivisie trophy:
How the cheese mongers molded: Sadly, by playing incredibly well in the Europa League. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that AZ have only won one match, to lowly VVV Venlo since they went all-in in the their failed two-legged tie against Valencia in the Europa League Quarterfinals. AZ’s lack of depth meant that their starters were running on fumes against fellow contenders Twente and PSV, taking just one point from those all important fixtures. Their back-line, which was at the fulcrum of their earlier success, has failed them, allowing multiple goals in three of their last four matches. AZ could essentially fall from A to Z as far as football relevance is concerned, unless they can somehow beat Feyenoord away, they won’t finish above 67 points, which could very well mean fifth place and back to the Europa League Playoffs they would go.
Why the Rotterdammers are restless: While “The Club on the Meuse” has been in arguably the best form outside of Amsterdam, unbeaten in their last eight, they’ve had too much ground to make up against a team as hot as Ajax. Draws against Utrecht and Roda will surely come back to haunt them. However, Feyenoord are still the team with the best shot to pull off the improbable. Should Twente do everyone in Ajax’s rearview mirror a favor and defeat Ajax in Enschede this coming Sunday, and, Feyenoord take full points from AZ at home, where Feyenoord have not lost since November, things could get interesting once again. Feyenoord’s schedule and strength at home lead one to believe that this is the team most capable of taking a full nine points from the last three matches, doing so would take them to 70 points on the season. Sadly for Feyenoord, even if Ajax lose on Sunday, they would need to take just four points from Venlo, the worst defense in the league and admittedly troublesome Vitesse to get to 71 points, nullifying Feyenoord’s noble efforts. A Champions League play-in spot should serve as a sliver of consolation for ‘De Stadionclub’
McClaren’s men fail to cut the mustard because: Their inability to consistently defend saw them draw back-to-back matches at AZ and in pathetic fashion at home to NAC Breda, allowing two goals at home to ‘The Rats’ is reason enough for title disqualification. The draw to AZ on the 11th effectively ended their slim hopes. If they had won that match and found a way to stop the Ajax freight train this Sunday, they could have been positioned for a crack at the title. Instead, they can only play spoilers, as, winning out will only take them to 69 points, and, I just can’t see that being enough to finish first.
PSV will be Poor Sulking Victims at the end of the year because: There was a time, at mid-season, when they were scoring goals for fun and sitting atop the league table, there was also a time when windmills dotted the Brooklyn skyline, things change. Since reaching first place on January 27th the “Boeren” have lived up to their none-too-flattering nickname as “peasants’, winning just half of their league matches since February. Dropping points to Groningen and Breda lead to the preemptive sacking of Fred Rutten and the caretaking appointment of ‘TotaalVoetbal’ legend Philip Cocu. The change seemed to inspire PSV if only for a moment, beating Heerenveen 5-1 in their first league match under Cocu. Unfortunately their positive reaction was quickly tempered when they became yet another scalp claimed by Ajax in their stony push to the title. A loss to lowly RKC Waalwijk on April 11th effectively sealed their fate, fourth place would seem a likely and deserved final resting place for a season that once held much promise. Winning the KNVB cup, the nations premier knockout tournament will have to suffice as this years crowning achievement for the Eindhoven side.
They were HEER, and now they’re gone because: The recent successes of AZ Alkmaar and FC Twente have lent some gravity to the previously unthinkable notion that a club from outside of the historic big three of Ajax, PSV and Feyenoord could crash the top of the Eredivisie table. Unfortunately, Heerenveen will have to wait to become the third team in recent history to spoil the big three’s party at the peak of Dutch club Football. With Marco van Basten set to take the reigns next season, big things may well lay on the horizon for this proud club from Friesland. On March 24th Heerenveen were just two points off league leaders at the time AZ. Frisian fantasies were running wild. Throw in a trouncing of their rivals Groningen the week after and the thought of ”fierljeppen’ (pole-vaulting) Ajax at home and making a dash for the title seemed as realistic as a Rembrandt self-portrait. Well, just add Heerenveen to the roster of clubs that saw their title hopes smashed by Ajax’s incomparable resume of recent results. Ajax’s 5-0 demolition of Heerenveen at the Abe Lenstra Stadion gutted any aspirations Heerenveen and their supporters might have had of capturing their first league title. Heerenveen are off course and likely don’t have more than a point left in em’. They’ll finish sixth.
*All above stated points rendered moot with an FC Twente victory over Ajax this Sunday @ 8:30 EST
– Zak Van Buren