Dutch football from Ajax to the Zuider Zee
The billing was Part One of an epic end-of-season showdown between the league's top two sides, FC Twente and Ajax. The stage was the KNVB Beker (Dutch Cup) final. The subtext was a chance to inflict a psychological blow in the build-up to what has taken over as the real cup final: the same two teams' winner-takes-all title-deciding league game next weekend.
In the end it was a thriller, unsurprisingly given that these two have already got one enthralling production under their belt this season – a captivating 2-2 last September. There were lessons learned: both sides could take many positives and negatives from the game.
But as the end titles rolled it was FC Twente who were the heroes, coming back from two goals down to win 3-2 after extra time. It was the Reds' first domestic cup triumph since 2001 and only their third overall; now last year's league champions stand on the brink not only of winning their first double but also of establishing a new order that seemed impossible less than a decade ago.
During the 2002/03 season, the club nearly went under. With a debt of around €14m, insolvency was only staved off by the hard work and dedication of then chairman Herman Wessels and Joop Munsterman, who succeeded Wessels in 2004.
Munsterman’s policy of thrift, prudence and the liberal application of elbow-grease attracted new sponsors, whose investment helped cancel out much of the debt and set the club onto the road to recovery.
He managed to grow the budget from just €11M in 2003 to €33M last season, making Twente's turnover the fourth-biggest in Holland. In a league won by one of the traditional big three (Ajax, PSV and Feyenoord) for all but three of the last 46 seasons, Twente have shown that other sides can achieve success with careful management and outlook.
The chairman’s philosophy has trickled down to the players and manager. After the game, Twente coach Michel Preud'homme was elated: "It was a great spectacle with two teams playing sometimes good football and with the fans creating a great atmosphere."
There was even a timely reminder of how the victors collected the trophy Dutch-style when the Twente players returned in their bathrobes, reminiscent of the great Ajax and Feyenoord sides of the early 1970s.
Immediately after taking over last summer, Preud'homme had won the season-opening Johan Cruijff Schaal – but this first major Dutch honour sits alongside the trophies he collected in his native Belgium: the Belgian Cup with Gent and the league championship with Standard Liège. Who said goalkeepers don’t make good coaches?
Capped 58 times for Belgium, including at Italia 90 and USA 94, Preud'homme was voted goalkeeper of the year five times between 1988 and 1994 during his playing time at Mechelen. By 1994 he was world-class, honoured as both UEFA and IFFHS goalkeeper of the year.
His coaching career had a false start with Standard Liège in 2001; although he only lasted 18 months, he returned in 2006 and won the title two years later. Moving immediately on the Gent, he led them to the 2010 Belgian Cup – and a week later succeeded Steve McClaren at Twente.
Before the final, Preud'homme's opposite number Frank de Boer spoke of the importance of maintaining a high degree of consistency during the 90 minutes if his side was to end the season with silverware in the bag and champagne corks on the floor.
"In games we always have times when we play well," he said. "But these periods should be longer. We must be consistent. It's still too volatile."
His words seemed to have been taken on board as Ajax stormed into a first-half lead, opening the scoring after four minutes through Demy de Zeeuw and doubling their advantage five minutes before the interval with Lorenzo Ebecilio's deflected strike.
But De Boer’s fears were proven correct when Twente struck back immediately before the second half – and on the hour, player of the season in waiting Theo Janssen equalised. Left-footed midfielder Janssen has developed a pleasing habit this season of finding the net whenever Twente need it most; if the club prevail against Ajax next weekend, the spot-kick equaliser that salvaged a point against Roda JC could be regarded as the moment the league was won.
Either side could have won the cup in normal time, but in the extra period Marc Janko headed home a perfectly weighted Janssen free-kick.
Twente can’t celebrate for too long as they attempt to create more history in this weekend's league title decider with Ajax. Avoiding defeat would give them their first double – and make them only the fourth side in to retain the Eredivisie.
Despite the positives of going two goals in front, defeat was a bitter pill for Ajax to swallow. De Boer now must pick up his players for what will be the biggest test of his sic-month managerial career.
"We could have decided the game in extra time," he said. "We dominated, but also lost a little bit of power on the wings. It is unfortunate that some players could not keep up the pace. I think we perhaps deserved more from the game. After all I have seen enough positive things for the next encounter.
"We will now prepare for the real final," he vowed. "That is the most important. But I would have preferred them both [cup and league titles]."
The mere fact that Ajax, given what they’ve gone through this season, are a win away from their first league title in 2004 is a real testament to their resolve. There’s no doubt De Boer needs to pick up his youthful squad and continue to drum the message of what needs to be done if they’re to end their seven-year title itch.
As for Twente, they only need a draw but will go for the win. If Preud'homme and his men manage it, we could witnessing the breaking of a glass ceiling in Dutch football.
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