The race to lift Holland’s highest prize is shaping up to be the most intriguing title race in Europe.
The green hoops of Glasgow have long decided Scotland’s fate, La Liga, the Prem and Serie A have narrowed the field down to two, France’s Ligue 1, the Portuguese Liga and the Bundesliga boast three possible contenders to their domestic league glory. All the while, Holland’s Eredivisie (the 4th best national league in Europe according to UEFA’s coefficient metrics), in true Dutch fashion is spreading the wealth, or the burden, depending on how one looks at it.
Unlike Spain or Scotland’s monogamous pairings atop their respective leagues, Holland’s elite competition has always been more of a “three-way” with PSV, Feyenoord and of course Ajax contending year in and year out for regional bragging rights. Recent seasons however, have seen the cheese farmers of AZ Alkmaar and “The pride of the east”, FC Twente, crash the party. This year you can add a Friesland side, which will be managed by Marco van Basten next year, SC Heerenveen, into the mix. The result: with six matches still to play, only four points separate first place from sixth. The most densely populated country in Europe it seems is making real estate at the top of the Eredivisie hard to come by.
This isn’t ‘The Hunger Games’, there will be no last second reprieve allowing two champions, no, this really is a fight to the finish, lets see who’s in the hunt and who has the best shot:
Ajax Amsterdam, current position: 1st, points: 58, critical matches ahead: Heerenveen, Twente and Vitesse, all away.
They’ll win because: As I put feelers out to get a sense of what the clogs on the ground in Holland thought about the title run, I kept hearing that Ajax were “In a winning mood”, which is as fair an assessment as any. Since losing 2-0 at home to Utrecht in early February, Ajax has been on a rampage. Granted, with the exception of PSV, whom they played at home in Amsterdam, the recent run of eight wins in a row has come against the leagues guppies. Still, outscoring their opposition 27-3 is a clear indication that the talent and intent are there.
Christian Eriksen leads the way and is the newest in Ajax’s long line of attack-minded midfielders, he is a difference maker with his ambition and virtuosic passing. It is uncertain as to how much longer the young star will remain in Holland, so, Ajax fans better savor every minute he’s on the pitch.
Their goal difference could very well be what puts them over the top in the end, the Amsterdam side is plus 43, only Twente on +39 are in the same ballpark, making the April 29th away fixture at Twente of Enschede all the more potent.
They won’t because: There is always a lingering air of pessimism surrounding teams that are expected to do well in Holland. As the Dutch track record in penalty kick situations can attest, when the lights shine brightest and the pressure is on, the Dutch can look more like wilting tulips than a “Clockwork Orange”. One Dutchman living in Amsterdam thought that Ajax had “Too much to lose”, eluding to the anchor of expectation which may prove too heavy for Ajax to bear in the final stretch. From a less ethereal angle, Ajax will in fact have to beat the best to be the best. Their schedule, the same one which was so kind over the past seven of eight matches, pits them against Steve McClaren’s ambitious FC Twente at Enschede. This will likely determine Twente’s fate this season, and, a big win for the Eastern club could thrust a stick into the spokes of Ajax. If that wasn’t enough, Vitesse, whom Ajax will face on the final day are intent on giving everyone in the race a headache, just ask AZ.
If they win…It’s fair to say that a 31st league title for de Amsterdammers would represent little more than a return to normalcy for Holland’s most prolific club and their understandably expectant fan base. That being said, they had to wait seven years between last years title and the previous coronation in ’04. A league victory is always a cause for Amsterdam to embrace its festive DNA, should the envy of all other Dutch clubs retake their usual end of year position, seated upon the Eredivisie throne, expect revelers from the Leidseplein to the Rembrantplein to be singing in full throat, watch as confused American frat boys assume the unintelligible mob is some sort of “Occupy” event as they retreat to the nearest coffee shop.
AZ Alkmaar, current position: 2nd, points: 57, critical matches ahead: Twente at home, PSV and Feyenoord away.
They’ll win because: My friend Koen says so. And, they have Jozy Altidore, he’s American, and American’s only engage in winnable European campaigns. But seriously, AZ will have the best chance to take their fate into their own hands. They play three of the top six teams down the stretch, and, if their undeniably stingy defense can help them to unexpected wins at PSV and Feyenoord (tall orders) then, they will take home the hardware and no one will doubt their worthiness. AZ are proving why the Eredivisie is a league capable of creating excellent teams. They have beaten Valencia, the 3rd best team in Spain, in the first leg of the Europa League Quarter-Finals and will be holding on to dear life in Valencia for the honor of representing their league in the semi-finals where they will face either Hannover or Atletico Madrid. Their run in the Europa League has injected the Club with confidence, which could carry over to the big fixtures ahead.
They won’t because: See above. Playing the other contenders down the stretch means that AZ could play spoilers, it also means of course that it is their party which may get pooped on. While they have an outstanding defensive record, they simply cannot keep up with the big boys when it comes to scoring goals. The aforementioned Altidore leads the way with 11 goals on the year, Elm is nearly equal on 10 goals, after that, it’s anyone’s guess as to who will step up for AZ in a big spot. If AZ move on in the Europa League and have the slightest of slip ups in the Eredivisie, they may just decide to put all of their effort towards winning the UEFA prize in lieu of their domestic competition, or, vice-versa, if they crash out in Valencia, the upside is that they will be able to refocus on the challenge at home, then again, I thought the same was going to be true of Man City and we’ve seen how that has played out.
If they win…After Alkmaar embarks on a city-wide weekend bender, the world awakes on Monday May 7th to find a global cheese shortage, Chelsea gallery’s have nothing to feed the attendees at their openings, spawning a global contemporary art meltdown, regional MFA programs are shuttered, neighborhoods from Red Hook to Bushwick are reclaimed by indigenous populations. Jozy Altidore becomes the first American player to significantly contribute to a European title-winning club.
FC Twente, current position: 3rd, points: 55, critical matches ahead: AZ away, Ajax and Heerenveen at home.
They’ll win because: If Twente can beat AZ on the road, the 11th of April, McClaren’s boys will have to see themselves as being in the drivers seat. They are at home to Ajax and Heerenveen down the stretch and could effectively knock either one out of the race. Twente are incredibly balanced. They can score goals, see: Luuk de Jong’s robust 20 goals in 20 matches, 71 goals as a team puts them second in the league, behind Ajax, while 32 allowed makes them second least likely to concede, behind AZ. Twente won their first Eredivisie title in the 09’-10 season, beating out Ajax by just a point. Who’s to say they can’t repeat the feat.
They won’t because: An AZ team, full of confidence following the elimination of Valencia earlier in the week will beat Twente at home in Alkmaar on the 11th of april, Ajax will win at Heerenveen on the same day and the gap will be too much to make up. Goalkeeper Nikolay Mihaylov is the worst possible combination of inconsistent and ambitions. It’s hard to mind your net in Enschede when you have eyes on Milan.
If they win…”Niki” Mihaylov gets to ply his trade at the San Siro, or, if anything is to be gleaned from his personal website, the catwalks of Milan. McClaren is offered the Koh-i-Noor diamond and lifelong free admission to the Jorrvik Viking Center in York to manage the England National Team.
PSV Eindhoven, current position: 4th, points: 54, critical matches ahead: AZ at home.
They’ll win because: The last quality competition they are likely to face is AZ on the 14th of April, PSV will play hosts. Perhaps the computer nerds down at Phillips, their main sponsor, hacked into the league scheduling software, because you couldn’t ask for easier foes coming around the final bend. PSV have given up more goals than all of the teams in front of them, but that’s partly due to the fact that they have already played most of the top six teams twice, again, except for AZ. As for their merits beyond the luck of the draw, they sit fourth because of the unmistakable talents of Swedish forward Ola Toivonen (25 goals in all competitions), Belgian midfielder Dries Mertens (17 goals in 19 Eredivisie games), Slovenian Forward Tim Matavz, whom PSV lured away from unfortunate Groningen is on 21 goals in all Dutch competitions this year. No other team in the field possesses the embarrassment of riches that PSV have developed as far as goal-scoring talents are concerned.
They won’t because: That easy schedule to which I just referred did not come soon enough. After taking just nine of a possible 21 points over the last seven matches for PSV, Fred Rutten has been sacked. Replaced by the penultimate scapegoat of the ’98 Holland-Brazil World Cup Semi-Final debacle and legendary “Total footballer”: Philip Cocu. Sometimes a team will rally behind a new coach, sometimes replacing a manager down the stretch is nothing more than trying to plug a terminally punctured levee, we’ll just have to wait and see.
Getting spanked by Breda and Groningen, as well as utterly disemboweled by Twente has to make the casual observer wonder if the PSV defense has what it takes to lock things down in the final thrust, even against lesser competition.
If they win…Retaking the Eredivisie title in conjunction with receiving The Intelligent Community Forum’s prize for ‘Most Intelligent Community of the Year 2011’ could go a long way towards raising their reputation as simple “Farmers”. Somehow I still believe that title celebrations will involve cow-tipping.
Feyenoord, current position: 5th, points: 54, critical matches ahead: AZ at home, Heerenveen away.
They’ll win because: They only have two big tests still to overcome and only one of those is on the road. If they can beat AZ at De Kuip, where they haven’t lost in six months, it’s game on for De Stadionclub. A strong push after that could put them in a position to win on the road at Heerenveen in the final match, and who knows, the biggest outsider in all of this may very well be out of it by then, with little to play for, the fighting spirit of the Frieslanders might not be sharp enough.
Feyenoord will be riding the ever rising blue-chip stock of Swedish wunderkind John Guidetti, who is on loan from Manchester City, and, with the future of a certain enthusiastic argentine golfer and mercurial Italian enfant terrible murky at best, he will likely find himself in the northwest of England next year, as City have already requested his return.
They won’t because: Only AZ is less competent going forward. After Guidetti, there’s not much to strike fear into the hearts of opposing keepers.
If they win…The Netherlands “Second City” will once again have bragging rights, Amsterdammers will never hear the end of it and in turn will continue to tell tourists wandering through the Vondelpark that Ro-Town is inhabited by uncultured mutants. The residents of “Manhattan on the Meuse” will proudly gaze upon the Erasmus Bridge knowing that their blue-collar spirit can still occasionally trump their erudite northern cousins.
Heerenveen, current position: 6th, points: 54, critical matches ahead: Ajax, Vitesse and Feyenoord at home, Twente away.
They’ll win because: Thanks to Luciano Narsingh and Oussama Assaidi Bas Dost has been able to lead the league in goals scored with some of the most unspectacular finishes ever to grace a YouTube highlight reel. Dost will move on, either to a bigger Dutch team (a move to Ajax got derailed last year), or abroad, that is certain, and when he does, he’ll have the likes of Narsingh, Assaidi and Djuricic to thank. Comparisons have been made, I think accurately to Miroslav Klose, largely because Dost seems to score almost all of his goals with his head, at the six-yard box, uncontested tap-ins at the back post and on penalty kicks.
If Ajax’s biggest potential impediment to winning the title is too much pressure to do so, then, Heerenveen, clearly the team being given the longest odds, could feel like they’re playing with house money and with their ability to counter-attack with the best of them, they might just have a punchers chance.
They won’t because: Even if they can pull off the upset of upsets by beating Ajax at home in the Abe Lenstra Stadion, while it would certainly be cause for the other contestants to sit up and take notice, the away fixtures at Twente and Feyenoord will prove too much for the upstart “super friezen”, as, perhaps indicated by PSV brushing Heerenveen aside to the tune of 10-2 over the two fixtures.
If they win…I’ll buy shots of Jenever for every Heerenveen supporter within eyeshot! Heerenveen will join Twente and AZ as the only teams outside the “Big 3” to win the Eredivisie since 1964. Heerenveen’s home, The Abe Lenstra Stadion is a rare example of a sports arena with a seating capacity larger than the population of the city in which it was built, so, just imagine something along the lines of a Green Bay Packers Super Bowl celebration, plus windmills.
Enjoy the sprint to the finish, and, no matter which team you support “May the odds be ever in your favor”. – Zak Van Buren