Dutch football from Ajax to the Zuider Zee
A fixture that has historically often decided championships did so again. Ajax left Rotterdam aggrieved, and did so with their hopes of retaining the title now hanging by a thread.
A hat-trick by John Guidetti, on loan from Manchester City, condemned the Amsterdammers to a 4-2 defeat, their first in the league against the De Kuip outfit in six years.
Feyenoord’s victory over their most bitter rivals was their third consecutive home win. The last two happened to be against the other members of last season’s top three: PSV and FC Twente, the aggregate score reading 9-4 in their favour.
In truth, Feyenoord have been a club transformed over the last 12 months. This time last year the Rotterdam giants were hovering just above the relegation zone. In the last few months respectability has been restored to a club that stared into the abyss and survived.
Ronald Koeman, who took over in July, has added steel, dynamism and creativity, but there is still room for improvement.
“The squad is comfortable in dealing with the trainer. The feeling is good in the group," captain Ron Vlaar said. "We are developing rapidly as a unit and I believe that we are more stable than last season."
In their most recent victory, the Rotterdam club were relentless in their pressing of Ajax, and picked them off on the counter. This has been their approach for much of the season, yet they still seem to struggle to motivate themselves against the ‘lesser’ sides.
For example, the defeat away to bottom side VVV at the start of the year may have scuppered any slim hopes of being involved in a championship race. But perhaps their victory in de Klassieker will make up for it.
“We have waited so long. This is great for the club. I am so happy for Rotterdam,” Koeman beamed, having preserved his unbeaten record in this fixture, which now stands at eight games.
Koeman’s appointment – following the departure of Mario Been at the end of last season – was seen as a gamble, but there was justification, given his record with youthful squads especially in the Netherlands.
"It's a real people's club – there's always something going on," Koeman enthused.
"But it's a club with good organisation, a talented squad and ambition. The latter is very important: I am a no-nonsense figure and completely suited to the playing style and vision of the club."
He also made history, becoming the first man to play for Ajax, PSV and Feyenoord, and also coach all three. His return to Rotterdam parallels his playing career in that his arrival was met with a few disgruntled grumbles, even if many of the club’s fans were willing to give him a crack. The cheerleaders were helped by his decision to enlist two former club greats - Jean-Paul van Gastel and Giovanni van Bronckhorst - as assistant coaches.
"Needless to say, Feyenoord is a splendid club for me to pick up the thread again as head coach," announced the younger Koeman. "It is my firm conviction that we are able to surprise this season. There is indeed plenty of quality and talent in this young squad."
In recent years, off the field clashes have marred the rivalry. Away fans have been barred from attending the fixture since 2009 as a result of increased hooliganism. The ban is expected to be lifted in 2014, with pleas to the Dutch FA for the ban to end early likely to fall on deaf ears.
The tribalism was again evident in the build-up to the most recent meeting, with Koeman enraged by a tweet made by Ajax full-back Gregory van der Wiel.
In less than 140 characters, the highly-rated Dutch international fullback wrote “020 is de baas in 010.” In other words ‘Amsterdam is the boss in Rotterdam’, the numbers representing the area code of both cities.
Koeman felt this seemingly innocuous spot of e-taunting could stoke the flames of aggression in what was already set to be a volatile atmosphere. “It’s up to the KNVB and Ajax to intervene, if that was one of my players, I would have imposed sanctions,” he said. “This statement by Van der Wiel was stupid. It’s not the first time he’s done something foolish.”
Van der Wiel missed Sunday’s match, so didn’t feel the full brunt of the enraged Rotterdam faithful, or of his side’s defeat. He wasn’t the only senior defender missing; Toby Alderweireld and Andre Ooijer were added to the list of casualties which already included Nicolai Boilesen. Ajax coach Frank De Boer was even forced to take part in training to even up the numbers, and didn’t look out of place.
There were half-hearted appeals from supporters for him to come out of retirement, initially in jest. During Sunday afternoon many of them will have genuinely wished he had dusted off his boots and taken to the pitch. The constant changing of the backline has mostly played its part in Ajax struggling this season.
Koeman had earmarked the defence as Ajax’s weak point, and this assertion was justified. Yet it was the away side that drew first blood, with Christian Eriksen capping off a brilliant counter-attack. Not since November 1991 have Feyenoord kept a clean sheet against their foe, a staggering 41 games ago.
Then came the turning point of the game. Jan Vertonghen thought he had won the ball cleanly from Guidetti in the penalty area, but was dismayed when referee Bjàrn Kuipers pointed to the spot. The Swede dusted himself down and converted to level the scores.
Kuipers defended his decision during a post-match interview on Dutch television, however after watching the footage he admitted it could have gone either way, though he remained adamant it didn’t change the game.
Vertonghen was incensed, but De Boer, though unhappy with the decision, calmly accepted it and felt the three points could have still been won. Not for the first time he questioned his more senior players, notably Eriksen, who failed to take the contest by the scruff of the neck, despite hitting the opener.
Ajax once again controlled possession for large patches of the first half, with Feyenoord seemingly willing to wait to pounce on the counter.
It is damning that Ajax have taken just five points from a possible 18 in their matches against AZ, PSV, FC Twente and Feyenoord so far this season. And that may be more than deserved judging by some of their performances in those matches.
They fell behind shortly before the interval when Guidetti bagged his second of the game, netting after Ajax keeper Vermeer had parried Bakkal's header.
If De Boer was expecting a response from his still incensed side after the break, he didn’t get it. Otman Bakkal doubled Feyenoord’s lead shortly after the re-start and, although Feyenoord keeper Erwin Mulder gifted Dmitri Bulykin a second for the visitors, Guidetti completed his hat-trick and the scoring with eight minutes remaining.
In the aftermath of the win, the hattrick hero – Rotterdam’s new son and cult icon - dedicated the victory to the boisterous support. Koeman was quick to lavish praise on the Swede who, despite his tender age of 19, has quickly become the player the manager and fans can rely on, with 14 goals in 13 league games.
But the Manchester City loanee isn’t the only Feyenoord youngster making a big splash. Guidetti’s rise has coincided with the emergence of midfielder Jordy Clasie, who was shielded from last season’s chaos at De Kuip while serving a loan spell on the other side of the city with Excelsior.
Educated at the club, he was loaned out to get valuable game time. The chances of him featuring under Been appeared slim but, given the likelihood of one or two midfielders departing, Feyenoord were appeared likely to throw him in the following season instead of dipping into the transfer market.
This was not least because Clasie is blessed with natural talent. His development has impressed many, especially those with the future of the national team in mind. His style of play - keeping possession, circulating the ball, ingenuity and exemplary passing - has earned him the nickname ‘the Xavi of De Kuip’, with the Spaniard being his idol and reference.
“I want to be like him,” Clasie has perhaps unsurprisingly stated. “Xavi is unplayable in everything he does.”
Given his height – 5ft5 – Clasie should also take inspiration from the fashion in which the Barcelona man has shown size isn’t a hindrance. Those that felt he wouldn’t make it as a professional are starting to tuck into their humble pie. Despite his relative inexperience he’s already of the key components in Koeman's side. The conductor of this rejuvenated Feyenoord and was again at the heart of the action against the enemy.
Before the game De Boer declared his side the stronger of the two, claiming, without a hint of irony, that Feyenoord were inconsistent. Those words came back to haunt him. Although they went into the game five points off the leaders – now seven – this masked what has been a ropey campaign.
Koeman dismissed Ajax’s chances of winning the league, labelling them vulnerable - few would disagree with him. However, the remaining fixtures look appeasing, and if any club can come back from the dead, it’s them. However, with PSV and FC Twente starting to hit their strides, it might be too little too late.
While at the start of 2011 trepidation engulfed De Kuip, in 2012 it’s tranquillity. For Koeman, the longer this newly-found team spirit remains, the better.
“It's not the despair, I can take the despair. It's the hope I can't stand.” The words uttered
Love or hate them, Ajax are unignorable. Those who wrote them off as title challengers made one grave
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