Dutch football from Ajax to the Zuider Zee
“It's not the despair, I can take the despair. It's the hope I can't stand.” The words uttered by John Cleese in Clockwise have been echoed by football fans ever since.
As spring blooms, the Dutch championship race is taking shape. Unexpectedly, if not unpleasantly, six sides are in the hunt – making this the most exciting, unpredictable and competitive Eredivisie season in living memory.
With most teams having 12 games left, the top six are separated by just five points. Joint leaders PSV Eindhoven and AZ Alkmaar are two points clear of Heerenveen, with FC Twente (who have a game in hand), Feyenoord and defending champions Ajax each one point further back than the last. It's the first time in 55 years that six teams have been in such close contention.
Can any other competition claim this number of close challengers? Outside the Eredivisie, the gap between first and sixth is closest in France with 12pts. In Italy it's 13, in Germany 15, in England 18, in Portugal 19 and in Spain it's a huge 29.
If all six Dutch challengers want to win the title then ultimately five will end the season in despair, and although AZ, Heerenveen and Feyenoord can considered their title push an unexpected bonus, the longer they stay in contention the more their pride could turn to anguish.
There will be naysayers who question the division's quality, but that's grossly unfair. True, it’s not the strongest, but that has allowed the environment for six evenly matched teams to take shape. It's better than living in a duopoly.
Bubbly: Ajax celebrate the 2011 title. Who's next?
Every side has weaknesses as well as strengths but if the title-chasers continue to display deficiencies it can only be good for competition. It's unlikely that all six will take it to the wire but the longer there’s an open race, the bigger public interest will be.
Eredivisie Live, the pay-TV channel owned by all 18 clubs, already has more than 350,000 subscribers – making it the highest rating digital channel in the Netherlands – but with around seven million people actively interested in football there’s still potential for growth, and seeing more than three teams battling will only appease.
Nobody denies that there are stronger leagues in Europe, but their comparatively unequal distribution of wealth has led to only a few with realistic aspirations. Eredivisie managing director Frank Rutten is proud that the Dutch top flight is now more like the open German model than the duopolised Spanish one.
As Rutten notes, this wasn’t always the case in Holland: for most of this century's first decade, PSV won seven titles in nine years. Their regression has opened up the league, and not just to the rest of the traditional Big Three, Feyenoord and Ajax – no strangers themselves to hegemony: from 1965 to 2008 those three hoovered up 43 of the 44 Eredivisie titles.
Since PSV last lifted the title in 2008, three different teams have won the title – most recently Ajax, but before that AZ (for their second title) and then FC Twente (for their first). And now the four most recent champions have been joined in the hunt by Heerenveen and Feyenoord.
No one could have predicted Heerenveen's upturn: their 43-point haul is already two more than last season, when they finished 12th. Known over the last 15 years or so for punching above their weight, they're straining to be champions: “I think we can say the ‘C’ word,” as coach Ron Jans said after the win over NAC Breda made it seven victories in eight games, including five on the bounce. More impressively they’re the only side to score in the first 22 games of the campaign which is a record.
FEATURE Oct 19 2011: Great pretenders Heerenveen seek to climb back into contention
But Jans, who recently praised the Eredivisie's newfound competitiveness, is also cautious. “I don't count on it happening: other teams are stronger. We lack the maturity to totally control a game, even if individually we have a lot of quality. But you never know what could happen.”
Former Heerenveen boss Gertjan Verbeek has also surprised. His AZ side were disappointedly inconsistent last season, but this time the wide-open title race means they're right in there. That said, there’s the feeling they’ve not played like champions elect, and a recent winter slump of one win in six games cost them the opportunity to open up a nine-point gap.
AZ's Europa League success may have distracted them
Echoing Jans, Verbeek has said that the Eredivisie is no longer a "Mickey Mouse" league and that the eventual champions might require 85 points or thereabouts (12 more than champions Ajax needed last season). A bad time, then, for the Alkmaar side to take their foot off the gas and let bookmakers' favourites PSV draw level at the top.
Like AZ, Fred Rutten’s PSV have stuttered this season, but they possess the most dynamic and prolific attack. It could very well be the difference that ends their four-year wait for the title.
One of the major criticisms levelled at Rutten last year was his conservative nature: PSV were too reactive in their approach, especially when teams put them on the back foot. Lessons learnt from last season will still need to be shown, such as dealing with the pressure heading into the final months, but so far things have looked promising despite a recent setback in Groningen.
Ajax’s aspirations were pronounced dead after a home defeat to FC Utrecht, but as is so often the case they managed to find their way back into the title picture – and with a battered squad close to full recovery, Frank de Boer once again believes. Last season they managed to claw back a seven-point deficit with fewer games remaining than now.
Also preaching positivity is Steve McClaren, and no wonder: with 15 goals and three wins in his first four games back, FC Twente are hitting their stride just at the right time. One of the pre-season favourites (along with PSV and Ajax), they’ve quietly gone about their business – even under the hardly subtle Co Adriaanse. Much depends on the goals of Luuk de Jong, along with the creative influence of Ola John and Nacer Chadli.
The last contenders, and arguably biggest outsiders, are Feyenoord. The Rotterdammers' renaissance has captured the imagination: this time last year they were on the brink of relegation, but now Ronald Koeman – who took charge in summer – could become the first manager to win the championship with each of the Dutch big three.
FEATURE Feb 2 2012: Klassieker victory suggests a brighter future lies ahead for Feyenoord
Winning the title will be a tall order, but for Feyenoord even being a contender means the season is already deemed a success. The priority for this campaign was getting back into European football; can the club afford to get sucked into the hype and hope?
This weekend sees four of the challengers meet: Heerenveen travel to AZ and Feyenoord travel to PSV (where last season they were mauled 10-0). Meanwhile, fourth-placed Twente will expect to beat midtable visitors Utrecht and sixth-placed Ajax will want to win at second-bottom Excelsior.
The right combination of results could see the top six condensed into a three-point zone. Then we most certainly will be entering squeaky-bum time.
Love or hate them, Ajax are unignorable. Those who wrote them off as title challengers made one grave
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