Dutch football from Ajax to the Zuider Zee
The regular season is over, but the football isn't – and in Holland, play-offs aren't restricted to deciding promotions from lower divisions. The season-sending shoot-outs this weekend (first legs Thursday, second legs Sunday) will help decide who gets into Europe – and who drops out of the division.
Up at the top of the table, ADO Den Haag and FC Groningen – having already disposed of Roda JC and Heracles respectively – will battle over two legs for a spot in next season's Europa League. Down at the other end VVV-Venlo and Excelsior, woeful all season, could save their skins against two of the better second-tier sides: FC Zwolle and Helmond Sport.
Everywhere you look there’s a story to tell. It's been 27 years since Helmond Sport have played in the Eredivisie; the club from North Brabant will forever be remembered for being on the receiving end of Johan Cruyff’s infamous "passed penalty".
Standing in their way are Excelsior, who were the third-worst team in this season's Eredivisie – but only just: they finished just two goals worse off than Vitesse Arnhem, whom they beat 4-1 on the final day. Helmond, for their part, will be wary that it was a side from Rotterdam (Sparta) who denied them the last time they reached this stage in 2004/05.
But there's a bigger story unfolding which involves a team from the nation’s administrative hub, The Hague (aka Den Haag) – there’s even a Dutch saying: "Amsterdam to party, Den Haag to live and Rotterdam to work".
The people from each city will claim all night that theirs is the best. In football terms it's much less arguable: whereas Ajax are undisputedly the biggest club in Holland, ADO Den Haag – the major club side from the Hague – have had somewhat mixed fortunes of late.
ADO haven't reached Europe since the late '80s, and have spent much of the time since in the second tier. They resurfaced in 2008, finishing 14th and then 15th before sacking Raymond Atteveld and seeking a new coach last summer.
The choice was perhaps surprising: rookie manager John van den Brom, who played under Louis van Gaal at Ajax during the mid-'90s and returned to coach their youngsters, but had only racked up three seasons as a head coach – at tiny outfit AGOVV Appeldorn, whom he led to the second-tier play-offs.
Spot the difference: Van den Brom the player and manager
His lack of managerial experience made him a gamble but so far it’s paying off. One reason for his success has been maintaining the traditional Dutch 4-3-3 (as per champions Ajax) and always emphasising the attack – something he definitely picked up from his time with Van Gaal.
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ADO's in-form striker Dmitri Bulykin has been ably supported by midfielder Jens Toornstra and forwards Charlton Vicento and Lex Immers. The key player has undoubtedly been wide man Wesley Verhoek – tipped for full international honours by the legendary Johnny Rep, who believes the 24-year-old is already better player than the current Oranje right-sider, Liverpool’s Dirk Kuyt.
Their opposition comes in a formidable package. Groningen is the largest city in North Holland, filled with students – and coach Pieter Huistra has been doing his homework on Den Haag, whom he sees as a team on a similar level.
The two-legged final should be a close affair, but not dull. This month's 4-2 romp for FC Groningen in The Hague all but ended the home side's hopes of finishing in fourth spot and thus gaining automatic European qualification. ADO want revenge but need to break a psychological barrier, considering they also lost 3-1 in Groningen earlier in the season.
Like ADO Den Haag, Groningen have had a season of ups and downs. At one stage it looked like they could be a late challenger for the league, especially when Ajax were at their lowest ebb around Christmas. But a side well-known for its inconsistency played up to the stereotype with a string of bad results.
After a morale-crushing 4-1 defeat to Roda JC in early February, Huistra said “I think we had all the bad luck you can have in a season in the game.” He was wrong: injury ruled out talismanic striker Petter Andersson (who’s caused Den Haag a few problems this season) for the next three games, which Groningen lost, conceding 10 goals – a bitter blow for their two star defenders, Swedes Andreas Granqvist and Fredrik Stenman.
They did regroup, that key victory over Den Haag helping them finish fifth, just two points behind fourth-placed AZ. And as ever in the play-offs, form is crucial: in the semi-final Groningen faced eighth-placed Heracles, who had convincingly beaten them twice in the regular season, but Huistra’s team dug in deep and won on away goals.
Den Haag will go into the two-legged final as underdogs, but boss Van den Brom has said he would rather face Groningen than Heracles – mainly because of the pitch at Heracles' Polman Stadion, but also to gain revenge for those regular-season defeats. In his own words, "I have a lot of faith in a happy ending.”
It what has been a brilliantly unpredictable season in Holland, you wouldn’t bet against Den Haag writing more fairy tales – and the same with Helmond Sport.
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