Dutch football from Ajax to the Zuider Zee
Did you have a Super Weekend? The Dutch did, for that was the name given to the most recent Eredivisie clashes, centring around two battles between the division's top-four sides as AZ welcomed Feyenoord and Ajax entertained FC Twente.
How to prepare for such clashes? “We went swimming.” Gertjan Verbeek was in a relaxed mood before AZ’s clash with Feyenoord. “After the effort we gave in the Cup I believe it’s such a bad idea to go out running.”
Indeed, his men had gone the distance against FC Groningen in their KNVB Cup tie last Thursday, eventually overcoming their nine-man rivals 4-2 in extra time. The victory took their winning run in all competitions to seven before the Sunday visit of Ronald Koeman’s rejuvenated Feyenoord, who have also been on an impressive run of form so far unbeaten this season.
“They are now a different team from last year,” Verbeek mused. “A team with confidence to dare and take the initiative, which is nice because then you will get an open game.” But he was also quick to point out Feyenoord had played on Tuesday, giving them twice as much preparation time.
KOEMAN RETURNS TO ALKMAAR WITH FEYENOORD
Feyenoord manager Ronald Koeman was prepared to forgive but not forget his treatment by AZ, with whom he parted company after just 17 games in 2009, precipitating an 18-month exile from the game. Koeman insisted he didn't want revenge, although he admitted a third straight league victory would give him a bigger smile than usual.
Many were calling it his first real test as Feyenoord manager, but Koeman wouldn’t have it: “I think our first game against Excelsior was perhaps a bigger test.” Instead there was nothing but praise for Verbeek’s side: “Right now they play the most attractive football in the league.”
Alkmaar isn't an easy place to go – AZ have only lost three home league games since late January 2010. Many fans ignore the sponsored ground name AFAS Stadion and call their home Victorie Stadion – alluding to the 80-year Dutch War of Independence against the Spanish Empire.
The match was no war of attrition. Verbeek’s pre-match prediction was accurate: the action was open and end-to-end from the start. Feyenoord led at half-time through PSV loanee Otman Bakkal's well-struck goal, and the Rotterdammers could contemplate topping the table – a clear contrast to this time last year when they had lost four of their first seven games.
But the home side came back after the interval. Rasmus Elm's brilliant free kick levelled matters, Feyenoord's Kelvin Leerdam was sent off and Brett Holman’s powerful header late on gave AZ victory, maintained their imperious home form and moved them to the top of the standings.
"The team fought for the points," said an upbeat Koeman. "Even with 10 men we continued to believe. We really played as a team: if according to the media this was a test, then we succeeded.”
Verbeek was understandably also happy. “I’ve never been in the lead, so it’s an unfamiliar feeling,” he chirped, before reverting to classic managerial downplaying by adding “We're only seven games into the season. It’s about where you stand after 34 matches.”
ADRIAANSE RETURNS TO AJAX WITH TWENTE
The previous day's big clash had seen Co Adriaanse – in his 500th Eredivisie game – take FC Twente to face former side Ajax in Amsterdam. The teams have faced off three times already this calendar year, with the Tukkers leading 2-1, although Ajax won the truly vital one – the last-day title face-off in May.
Half-Time Oranje, Wed 18 May: De Boer triumphs in the Ajax tradition
Ajax manager Frank de Boer was bullish: “We are certainly not afraid. We just play the same game as we did in the Johan Cruyff shield.” Twente won that season curtain-raiser back in July at the Amsterdam Arena, but Ajax were on top for much of a game that proved you don't always get what you deserve in football.
After that match, De Boer bemoaned his side's wastefulness in the final third; Adriaanse was more than happy to admit Ajax’s superiority – politely, if evidently incorrectly, calling them invincible at home – but reminding the world that while possession might be nine-tenths of the law, it’s what you do with it that counts.
The return of Adriaanse has already paid dividends for Twente, whose attacking style remains the same as in previous years despite changes in personnel. The weekend before the Ajax game, in order to accommodate his two strikers Marc Janko and Luuk de Jong, Adriaanse used his tactical nous to convert the latter into a playmaker.
"Everyone knows I’d rather play as a striker," De Jong said after that game, "but I know how to play as a No.10 and will always put the team first.” It did neither the team nor the player any harm: Twente won 5-2 and De Jong scored twice, his selflessness earning praise from Adriaanse.
DE JONGS FIGHT AMONG THEMSELVES
Luuk has been at the centre of an intriguing subplot in recent Ajax-Twente clashes: a sibling rivalry between him and his elder brother Siem de Jong. Going into Saturday’s clash, Siem had the bragging rights after his two goals helped Ajax clinch the title.
“It will again be a small family reunion,” Luuk said. “Last time 20 [family] members came; this time around they may care for Siem as he’s playing at home.”
So far this season both brothers have been in good, if contrasting, form. Siem has scored three times while playing a pivotal midfield role for Ajax, though Luuk triples that with nine goals – 10 if you include his first for the national side against Finland.
Luuk seems to have moved ahead of Siem in L'Oranje's pecking order, although the fierce competition for midfield places may explain why the Ajax man hasn't added to his solitary cap so far. Despite the club rivalry, there wasn’t any hint of envy from older brother, who was proud when Luuk opened his account in the Land of the Midnight Sun.
Luuk (left) and Siem de Jong
For the clash with Twente Ajax welcomed back Miralem Sulejmani from a hamstring layoff. On the opposite wing, Derk Boerrigter had the opportunity to impress national team manager Bert van Marwijk; injury to Ibrahim Afellay, though unfortunate for the Barcelona man, could be the Ajax winger’s gain. Already Marc Overmars and Piet Keizer have praised Boerrigter's crafty pace, industry and end product.
Boerrigter didn't mis his chance. His burst of acceleration led to Ajax’s opener from a breathtaking 10th-minute counter-attack finished by Sulejmani. The hosts led until the 87th minute, when Luuk de Jong's diving header salvaged a point for FC Twente and the bragging rights in his sibling rivalry.
“We had the upper hand, this is sour," said De Boer. "I take the blame myself: we must defend till the very last minute better.” It's not an unusual post-match briefing: Ajax have gone 11 league games without a clean sheet.
In fact the press conference resembled Groundhog Day, with Adriaanse again acknowledging Ajax's superiority – although "in the second half you saw that we were getting better and stronger. At one point we were the more attacking.”
Results around the country have left the top five separated by five points – but in a very welcome five-way race, it's AZ, where things are going swimmingly well, who are leading the way.
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