Dutch football from Ajax to the Zuider Zee
Dutch football blogger Mohamed Moallim ponders whether there are big problems facing club football in Holland in the light of Dutch sides' poor performances in Europe this season...
As they enter tonight's Europa League quarterfinal second legs, Holland's two remaining representatives have a mountain to climb.
The Dutch top two were well and truly humbled in their Europa League quarter-final first-leg ties last week. But what was the cause - bad tactics, bad luck or a more worrying longer term nation-wide trend?
It was as if Murphy’s Law was in full swing at the Estádio da Luz and El Madrigal - anything that could go wrong, did go wrong, with a combined nine goals conceded by PSV Eindhoven and FC Twente, and a just two meekly mustered between them in reply as they headed back to Holland with their tails firmly between their legs.
It is easy to be over-critical - neither side surrendered, it was just the case of running into two inspired opponents - Benfica and Villarreal - who were one or two levels above them, but one wonders in light of these results what the immediate future holds for Dutch football.
Saviola scores Benfica's fourth against PSV
Let’s not forget these are the best two teams Holland has to offer right now, but there’s no hiding place in the latter stages of either one of Europe’s major cup competitions. While it’s fair to suggest neither side will have set winning the Europa League as their top priority, surely there’s more to life than just winning the national championship?
It’s very likely that one or both of these sides will be playing in the Champions League next season - and like supporting characters in a bad horror movie their demise has become predictable. They’ll no doubt give their all but will fall short, whether in the group stages or the first knockout round.
Of course the prestige and financial reward of playing in the competition is what really matters. Simply reaching the group phase will earn them more than most teams in their homeland will earn over the course of the season in television and prize money.
But in turn winning the competition becomes a farfetched dream given the minimal resources they have compared to teams from the bigger leagues, and even some a tad smaller.
Trouble at home?
The week didn't get much better for Holland’s European representatives, as both dropped vital points in the title race last weekend, allowing Ajax right back in to the race. The top three are now only separated by three points with four games to go.
PSV and Ola Toinoven left it very late to salvage a 2-2 draw at home to Heerenveen. The Eindhoven side took the lead through Jermain Lens, only to be pegged back by Ousama Assaidi and minutes later Bas Dost as the game was turned on its head.
Not for the first time, Theo Janssen was Twente’s hero at De Grolsch Veste, scoring a late penalty to deny Roda JC a shock victory after Boldizsar Bodor had given the away side the lead.
These lucky escapes will both go down as a rare blip - nine times out of ten this season both matches would have ended in victory for the stronger home side and this could possibly offer another explanation of their European failings.
As great as the Eredivisie is to watch, it doesn’t offer a real examination of the top clubs on a regular enough basis. While there is the occasional upset here and there, in reality both PSV and Twente - and you could even still include out-of-sorts Ajax on the list - are big fish in a small pond. But even they become small fishes in vast lakes of European competition.
Ajax offered a perfect example when they met Real Madrid at the Bernabéu earlier in the season in a game they really should have lost by double figures, and would have had it not been for the brilliance of goalkeeper Maarten Stekelenburg.
There was a suggestion that night that Martin Jol’s strange choice of tactics and formation had a negative effect on his side, and similar claims were directed at Twente coach Michel Preud'homme after his team were torpedoed by The Yellow Submarine.
Preud'homme sprang a surprise from the start by benching in-form winger Nacer Chadli in what appeared to be a brave tactical decision as he opted for a 3-4-3 formation instead of his usual 4-3-3. And for a while he looked vindicated, his plan to nullify the Villarreal threat was working.
Valero delivers the knock-out blow to FC Twente
But once Juan Carlos Garrido’s men took the lead, Twente’s self-belief was dealt a blow and in unfamiliar surroundings they collapsed with Villarreal scoring a further four times, with Twente's only coming when Marc Janko pinched an away goal in injury time.
After the game the Belgian coach couldn’t offer any explanation for the heavy defeat beyond their inability to recover from conceding the opener, and it was alarming that despite Villarreal taking full control of the game he failed to change formation, which played straight into the hands of the Spanish side.
PSV fared only marginally better, losing 4-1 in Lisbon. Historically they’ve struggled on Portuguese soil but this was by far their worst defeat. Yet at one stage there looked like an outside chance of progression.
At 3-1 it wasn’t out of the realms of possibility for them to win 2-0 at the Philips Stadion, but then in the second minute of stoppage time they carelessly conceded a fourth goal and it now looks an uphill task for Fred Rutten’s troops.
Dutch football is at its lowest ebb, but it wasn’t always like this. Between 1970 and 1995 Dutch sides won a total of six European Cups, three UEFA Cups and a Cup Winners’ Cup.
You have to go back to 2002 for the last time a Dutch side tasted glory on the European stage. That was a Feyenoord side under the stewardship of current national team boss Bert van Marwijk which included a young Robin van Persie as they won the UEFA Cup final against Borrusia Dortmund.
Since then only PSV have enjoyed a European campaign of note, reaching the semi-finals of the 2004/05 Champions League campaign and in fact being only a whisker away from a place in the final, only for a 91st minute strike from Massimo Ambrosini to deal them the cruellest of blows.
Since then there have only been sporadic successes - AZ Alkmaar got to the quarter-final stage of the 2006-07 UEFA Cup and PSV did the same the following year, both bowing out in spectacular fashion.
PSV's 2005 vintage were left heartbroken against Milan
It’s difficult to pinpoint the exact reason Dutch sides have performed so woefully as a collective. Each side have their own individual issues, of course, but there are some striking similarities. It’s often the case that their squads are full of young players, and therefore there is a real lack of experience at the highest level. Indeed, once the best youngsters do get that experience, they are often snapped up by clubs for other leagues.
As a result it’s very difficult for a club to keep a settled squad for more than a couple of seasons, once they gain a rhythm of familiarity and experience together it’s quickly dismantled with the better players leaving for pastures new.
The difficulty sides from Holland have in competing financially with clubs from most other European leagues mean attracting the players needed to make a real splash in Europe is increasingly becoming a pipe dream.
This plight has not gone unnoticed by the powerbrokers, with Dutch FA president Michael van Praag last year speaking ominously of the future, blaming the Bosman ruling and greed of agents coupled with the rapid globalisation of the game for the decline of club football in his country.
Only a pessimist would suggest Dutch sides can never again achieve the same levels of continental success they once enjoyed, but for the time being it looks a long way off.
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