Dutch football from Ajax to the Zuider Zee
It’s starting to get interesting towards the top of the Eredivisie - and I’m not just talking about the title race, which now sees the top three separated by just one point, but also the race for the Europa League spots.
The European play-off system - which pits the sides finishing fifth to eighth against one another in a battle for Holland's last Europa League spot - has its fans and detractors, but what it does provide is additional late season excitement. Although that’s no compensation to the sides that have lost out on a European spot despite finishing higher in the league than the eventual qualifier.
The sides currently occupying the play-off spots are AZ Alkmaar, ADO Den Haag, Roda JC, FC Groningen and FC Utrecht; but fourth placed AZ Alkmaar will still be looking back over their shoulder, and a host of sides further down the league will still fancy their chances of pinching a place.
All of the sides in the European mix have had spectacular seasons in one way or another, but none more so than Den Haag, who many tipped to be fighting off relegation rather than battling for a first European spot since 1987.
It’s been a rollercoaster last few seasons for the Haugue side. Relegation to the Eerste Divisie - the second tier in Holland - at the end of the 2006-07 season left them on the road to nowhere, but they duly bounced back via the play-offs and made it back to the top flight at the first time of asking, looking to settle back into a life of mid-table mediocrity and the occasional flirt with relegation. But this season has been different, and it might be down to a surprise and now seemingly inspired managerial appointment.
Den Haag finished a place above the relegation zone last season, and in the summer parted company with caretaker manager Maurice Steijn, who had temporarily taken over the reins from previous manager Raymond Atteveld towards the end of last season. John den Brom, a rookie in terms of managerial experience, was appointed in his stead.
His achievements to date has been remarkable, although his success should perhaps not be too much of a surprise, given that he played under Louis van Gaal at Ajax during the mid 90’s. An away win at PSV Eindhoven and a league ‘double’ over Ajax for the first time in the club’s history have been the cornerstones of Den Haag’s transformation from relegation candidates to possible Europa League participants – a turnaround that has now got many tipping Den Brom to end the season with the manager of the year award.
Prior to their game against AZ on Saturday, Den Haag had managed 16 league victories so far this season, nine more than the whole of the previous campaign - three more away and six more at home.
The visit to Alkmaar was going to be another major test, given the close proximity of the two teams in league terms, Den Haag lying in fourth – in the automatic Europa League qualifying spot – with a point more than AZ, who knew victory would be enough to see them leapfrog their rivals – which was exactly what they did.
A 3-1 win for the home side saw the pair swap league positions. Kolbeinn Sigthórsson had set Gertjan Verbeek’s men on their way and later on a costly error from Timothy Derijck saw AZ double their lead through Australian Brett Holman. Despite Derijck then pulling a goal back, Nick van der Velden made sure the points were safe minutes from the end.
With only three games to go, three of AZ, Den Haag, Roda JC and FC Groningen will almost certainly finish in the Europa League play-off spots while one will enter straight into the third qualifying round.
Groningen missed an opportunity to maintain their advantage over Roda JC, losing 2-1 away to Vitesse after Albert Ferrer's men mounted a superb second half comeback thanks to goals from Wilfried Bony and Guram Kashia – the win has all but saved the Arnhem side from the stress of the relegation play-offs.
Roda, on the other hand, produced an impressive display at home against VVV Venlo. Mads Junker didn’t do his chances of ending the season with the Golden Boot any harm with a first half hat-trick in his sides comfortable 5-2 win. The Dane is now a goal behind Björn Vleminckx on the goalscorers chart.
However it’s FC Utrecht’s position, eighth in the table – the final play-off spot, that has become most precarious. Ominously, just two points separate them and NEC Nijmegen in twelfth spot. Among the hunting pack are Feyenoord, who have enjoyed a remarkable resurgence since the winter break.
The Rotterdam giants were in serious danger of relegation, an unthinkable demise which looked a real possibility after defeat to fellow strugglers De Graafschap in late January. Just 11 league games later things are looking far rosier. Feyenoord have won six of those 11 matches - most of them in emphatic fashion.
A thumping 6-1 victory over lowly Willem II - with Georginio Wijnaldum, Ryo Miyaichi (on loan from Arsenal) and Inter Milan bound Luc Castaignos all on the score sheet - has now left them with a real chance of ending their season with an opportunity to play in Europe next season.
A real test of their mettle will be the visit of PSV next weekend. Den Haag will welcome FC Twente, while cursing their luck that the fixture computer has given AZ a far more relaxing away trip to Willem II.
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