Dutch football from Ajax to the Zuider Zee
The perfect time to visit Amsterdam is said to be during the autumn. The crisp breeze in the air and changing colour of the foliage are a striking but welcome reminder winter is around the corner. The locals start to settle back into town life as the rush of tourists eases off.
In recent years there has been no good time for Feyenoord to visit. On the pitch, the team have rarely been able to trouble their rivals. Off the pitch, their fans are currently prohibited from making the short trip north due to a five-year ban put in place by the mayors of the two cities and the Dutch FA in February 2009.
This is De Klassieker, a tale of two cities it would be an understatement to suggest were vastly different. Amsterdam, the capital, is renowned for being a cultural hub, and its open-mindedness and laid-back attitude are in stark contrast to Rotterdam’s perceived resilience, industry and hard work.
In explaining the embitterment of the two cities, poet Jules Deelder – a fan of Feyenoord’s city rival Sparta – once quipped: "Holland's money is earned in Rotterdam, divided in The Hague, and flushed down the toilet in Amsterdam."
Prior to the latest meeting between the two cities premier sides, the two managers lavished praise on one another, but never forgot their audience. Frank de Boer applauded Feyenoord’s recent resurgence, but was clear it wouldn’t be allowed to continue in his back garden. “They play with more confidence than last season, they are harder to beat and play better. But we want the three points.”
While opposite number Ronald Koeman saluted Ajax’s quality, he still gave his side a chance. “Even if you are weaker on paper you can achieve a good result with a clever tactical plan,” Koeman said. “We will try and pressure them. The only way to beat Ajax is to dare. But that's not to say I can pull a rabbit out of the hat in every game.''
Amsterdam in autumn - pleasant, but not for Feyenoord...
It’s rare to see Feyenoord above Ajax in the standings going into De Klassieker, but a run of four league games without victory left the Amsterdam side looking up at their rivals. What a difference a year makes – the derby meeting took place a year to the day since Feyenoord were mauled 10-0 in Eindhoven.
The swing in fortunes meant that for once it was Ajax who were under the greater pressure, and this gave Feyenoord hope of recording their first win in the capital since August 2005, when Salomon Kalou and Dirk Kuyt scored in a famous 2-1 victory.
After their recent 4-0 win over VVV Venlo, Feyenoord club captain Ron Vlaar proclaimed: “We go into the game against Ajax with increased confidence. There are certainly opportunities for us in Amsterdam. We have our own strengths. Ajax has a lot of quality, but they are also vulnerable.”
That vulnerability to which Vlaar was referring was the failure to keep a clean sheet in fourteen consecutive league – a statistic amplified given they employ a former defender par excellence as coach.
This weakness has at least partly been attributed to the changing of goalkeepers, with Maarten Stekelenburg leaving for Roma in the summer having also been injured towards the back-end of the last campaign. Replacement Kenneth Vermeer has yet to truly establish himself. Feyenoord, meanwhile, had failed to score in only two of their previous fifteen Eredivisie matches.
De Boer had reiterated the importance of Ajax dominating at home. Since ADO Den Haag’s win last November in the final days of Martin Jol’s tenure, only Spartak Moscow had left Amsterdam victorious.
Over the past 12 months, the average age of the starting XI of both sides has been in the early 20s. This is now fairly commonplace in the Dutch top flight, and has perhaps helped keep the football open and attack-minded, two qualities that have made the league of Europe’s most compelling. And the Sunday lunchtime showdown in the capital was no different.
The importance of victory wasn’t lost on either side. Bragging rights aside, Ajax went into the match trailing leaders AZ by six points, while Feyenoord needed to solidify their ascent and keep their noses ahead of their rivals.
Goals were promised, in the last five Amsterdam meetings a total of 18 been scored - 16 for Ajax and just the two for Feyenoord. But they didn’t flow in as expected.
For most of the game, Feyenoord troubled Ajax, as Koeman had predicted they would, by pressing high up the pitch. It took a Stefan de Vrij effort on the hour mark, which deflected off Ajax stopper Vermeer, to give the visitors the lead.
Minutes later the home side’s keeper was shown a straight red for bringing down Guyon Fernandez. It must have felt like Groundhog Day for De Boer, as it was the third straight league game in which he’s seen one of his players sent for an early bath.
“I'm really disappointed because this is a strange and annoying phenomenon. This simply means with eleven men we do not give 100%. We need to sort this out,” the manager would later exclaim.
But as the old saying goes, playing against 10 men isn’t always easier than playing against 11.
Johan Cruyff once famously stated the obvious. “The team with 11 will think ‘ok, we can take it easy now’, while the team with 10 will think ‘we really have to work hard now’.
Cruyff, the maverick, even added “I have seriously considered playing with nine players instead of eleven in some cases. Just to keep them all awake. I’m certain we would have had the same or even better results.”
De Boer might just buy into the idea.
Feyenoord may have felt they wouldn’t get a better chance to end their long wait for a win on enemy territory. But it wasn’t to be, as the game suddenly transformed into a frantic classic.
Jan Vertonghen immediately equalised from a corner and the tempo was upped, with both sides going for the win. While De Boer scratched his head and wondered why his team waited so long to kick into gear, Koeman was left with mixed feelings as he left Amsterdam with a point.
“I'm really disappointed in the result. We grew into the game. We were dangerous and had most of the chances,” the Feyenoord boss grumbled.
The next time the two sides lock horns will be at the end of January. Even though the spoils were shared, football was the real winner. It may well be a while before the two sets of fans can enjoy the derby together in the same stadium, but at least for the neutrals, De Klassieker continues to be something to savour.
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