Dutch football from Ajax to the Zuider Zee
It seems like only yesterday that Ajax and FC Twente's final-day duel for the 2010/11 Eredivisie championship. Ajax ultimately lifted their 30th league title thanks to a brace from Siem de Jong, causing mass euphoria on the streets of Amsterdam.
That's now in the past as Frank de Boer prepares his troops for their defence and it’s no secret where the biggest challenges will come from: Enschede and Eindhoven.
Even before a ball has been kicked in anger this already feels like a season that will ebb and flow, and as a result there’s every potential for a final-day drama akin to the one that culminated the 2006/07 season.
Not in a generation have three sides felt as equally matched going into a campaign, but it's Ajax who will start as favourites, on the basis their squad hasn’t (yet) been disrupted greatly and has indeed been strengthened. Maarten Stekelenburg’s departure to AS Roma – for €6M plus bonuses – has been the only blot to what Ajax fans had hoped to be a summer where their bigger names remain.
Before the deal had been concluded De Boer had named Stekelenburg's successor, his erstwhile understudy Kenneth Vermeer, regaining the No.1 position he briefly held before being usurped by Stekelenburg.
Elsewhere on the transfer front the Amsterdam club pulled off a coup of their own by snapping up the 2010/11 player of the season, Theo Janssen from rivals FC Twente. More firepower has been added up front by acquiring Kolbeinn Sigþórsson from AZ, who last season bagged 15 goals in 32 league games.
Both signings fulfil a need in De Boer’s side: a controlling playmaker and an out-and-out No.9, given Mounir El Hamdaoui has become persona non grata at the club (this going back to a fall-out with De Boer over absence from training early on in his tenure).
The Amsterdammers begin their title defence at De Graafschap – the perennial yo-yo club who stayed up by the skin of their teeth and are expected to struggle again – where last term they enjoyed a season-best 5-0 rout; anything similar would sure put the league on notice.
For a third straight season FC Twente will set sail under a new coach; Michel Preud'homme left over the summer despite being a draw away from seeing the Enschede side become the first club outside the traditional big three to win back-to-back championships since Dutch football turned professional.
In the hot seat – after a six-year absence from the Dutch top flight – is the ever popular and downright maverick Co Adriaanse. Like his predecessor he triumphed over Ajax (one of his many former clubs) in the curtain-raising Johan Cruijff Schaal. Despite his illustrious career the Eredivisie crown has eluded him and with a squad deemed good enough for the championship he needs to find a way to plug the void that’s been left by Janssen.
HALF-TIME ORANJE, Wed 29 Jun: 'Psycho Co' Adriaanse back in the Dutch big league
With a squad that’s remained much the same from last season there’s every chance of them regaining the title, as long as they don't get too distracted by the prolonged campaign in Europe which Adriaanse wants.
Their first game is at NAC Breda, the scene of one of Twente’s four away defeats last season – one of Breda's few bright moments in a campaign mostly spent fighting relegation.
If anything is disturbing the top two's sleep it will be the mumblings of an awoken giant desperate to end a four-year spell without the prize it once monopolised. PSV Eindhoven have been steadily going about their business during the summer; the acquisition of three highly-rated talents for the bargain total of €18m – Kevin Strootman and Dries Mertens from FC Utrecht plus Georginio Wijnaldum from Feyenoord – has lifted the dark clouds over the Philips Stadion.
HALF-TIME ORANJE, Tue 19 Jul: Rebuilding underway as PSV tighten their belts
Much rests on the coach Fred Rutten. His many critics point to a passive approach which at times tends to backfire on his team, none more evidently than towards the end of last season: at one stage the championship was PSV’s to lose, which they did spectacularly.
One of the highlights of last season was the unpredictability of the league outside the championship race. With everything in perspective, ADO Den Haag’s rise from relegation fodder to threatening the top three made them the team of the season.
The architect behind their amazing run, rookie coach John van den Brom, has since departed to the one club for whom he would have left Den Haag: Vitesse. Not much is expected of his successor Maurice Steijn; for the fans, mid-table mediocrity is better than a return to the days of fighting relegation, although this could prove to be difficult if talisman Wesley Verhoek leaves. Already last season’s top scorer Dmitri Bulykin – who was on loan – has returned to parent club Anderlecht.
HALF-TIME ORANJE, Wed 25 May: Fairy tales ready to be written in Holland
Van den Brom’s move coincides with a new level of expectation at Vitesse. Their owner Merab Jordania has outlined a short-term vision of playing in Europe before cracking the league. (The club also happened to finish in the same position Van den Brom found Den Haag in when he initially took over.)
You wouldn’t bet against the successful young coach taking Vitesse to the lofty heights he reached with Den Haag, but the squad he inherits – a lot of whom are on the youthful side – suggests another season of struggle. And as luck would have it, Vitesse travel to Den Haag on the opening weekend; it'll be interesting to see the reception Van den Brom gets.
The league will get some brotherly love courtesy of the Koemans: Ronald and Erwin have been appointed by Feyenoord and FC Utrecht respectively. The biggest task undoubtedly falls to Ronald, who incidentally becomes the first man to play for and coach all the Dutch big three: Ajax, PSV and Feyenoord.
Rotterdam side Feyenoord parted company with Mario Been – with suggestions he jumped before being pushed after a vote of no confidence from the players – after one of their more tumultuous seasons. Koeman enters a bear pit knowing the task that faces him will be an uphill struggle, especially after losing Wijnaldum, Luc Castaignos and Ryo Miyaichi – although the Japanese sensation could yet return on loan from Arsenal.
HALF-TIME ORANJE, Thu 21 Apr: Miyaichi inspires big change in Feyenoord fortunes
As things stand, the best he can hope for is a finish in the Europa League play-offs. Baby steps, as they say, although it may not satisfy some of the more diehard fans who have been vocal about the direction of the club and the state it finds itself in.
Feyenoord will have the honour of kick-starting the league in a local derby against Excelsior, who only survived through the relegation play-offs – as did VVV-Venlo. Not much is expected of either team and if they’re not lucky a worse fate could meet both teams come next May.
Older brother Erwin may also find the upcoming season a challenge at Utrecht. Besides losing Strootman and Mertens to PSV he will have to do without Ricky van Wolfswinkel, who as joined Lisbon club Sporting on the back of his most prolific season in Utrecht – 20 goals in 39 games. Koeman should target a place in the top 10, with anything above that being more than a bonus.
Two sides that will no doubt be there or thereabouts – contesting the Europa League play-off spots, but more importantly fighting for a top four position – are AZ and FC Groningen. Both have become a model of consistency in the league, although the latter have been more prone to make you think otherwise.
Both have lost a talismanic figure, Stijn Schaars and Andreas Granqvist respectively, and the onus is on the rest of the squad to make up for their absence. One does feel inadequately replacing Granqvist may hurt Groningen in the long run, as well as if they lose Tim Matavž. Elsewhere for FC Groningen Dušan Tadić is just waiting to become a player of the season candidate; alongside Nacer Chadli of FC Twente, he was unquestionably the signing of last season.
Another blow for AZ was Sigþórsson’s departure but they’ve quickly found a replacement from Villarreal in US international Jozy Altidore, who is hoping to find his niche under the tutelage of Gertjan Verbeek (before the signing admitted he’s never seen him play in a game bar the odd YouTube footage).
Sigþórsson’s departure reduces AZ's Icelandic population to just the one. Jóhann Berg Guðmundsson showed glimpse to what he offers, and big things are expected of the 20-year-old. The matchup between AZ and PSV is undoubtedly the most mouth-watering of the first weekend.
Another side that punched above its weight last season is Roda JC, hoping to maintain the form that saw them finish in the top five. Only the top three lost fewer games than Roda last season, and with Mads Junker – the league's third-highest scorer last season – on board, expectations have risen. As for Heerenveen, keeping hold of Roy Beerens has become a must; last season saw them threaten the Europa League play-off spot that now becomes their target.
Just above Heerenveen last season in lower midtable were NEC, boosted by Golden Boot winner Björn Vleminckx, although to the club's chagrin even before the end of the season he signed a pre-contract for Club Brugge. (You have to go back to Mateja Kežman in 2004 for the last player to win back-to-back Golden Boots.)
One of the sides to finish with a flourish in 2010/11 was Heracles Almelo. Four wins in their last five games – only Ajax had a better string of form – saw them propel themselves into the fourth and final Europa League play-off spot. Much of it was down to the goalscoring prowess of Everton Ramos da Silva, which spurred on his teammates.
It will be an achievement of mythical proportions for Heracles to improve on that, but a challenge manager Peter Bosz will once again accept, and they will start away to newcomers RKC Waalwijk, returning to the league after a four-year absence.
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